Across the Great Divides? No More (Updated)

No matter the measure you use–education, income, heritage, race, family size, job type, language–Americans are moving to greater segregation than we have ever before experienced. This is a no-brainer; it has been the pattern for decades, and it becomes more dominant each year.

We must be satisfied with it, for we are doing nothing, absolutely nothing to change it. Certainly not in higher education.

My students, most of them first-generation college students, many of them immigrants, almost all of them from the less fortunate “side of the tracks” in one way or another (generally in many), are still sold the dream that they can make it to the other side of the divides, that their education is going to make a difference. They have been told that degrees are all it takes, told it throughout their education. I work with an Associates degree program, a transfer program meant to prepare students for baccalaureate majors. Few of these students were strong candidates for college in the first place (else they would be at one of the other CUNY campuses) though most of them (even those lacking basic skills) have the intellectual capacity for college work. As in A.A. programs nationwide, however, their success rate is abysmally low. We, like educators everywhere, are working hard to change that–but we still are, also, abetting a situation of growing separation.

What are these students going to do when they do get their Bachelor’s degrees and find that they still aren’t going to get the prize jobs? When are we going to admit to them that the dreams for their futures that we have helped foster can never be realized, that their chances of crossing to the other side are next to nil? When are we going to recognize that we are fooling ourselves–along with our students–when we claim that degrees are enough in themselves?

When are we going to admit to our students what is right before our faces–even in our college towns? Richard Florida, in a recent article, points out what we all know but few admit:

When medium and smaller-sized metros are taken into account, many of the places with the most concentrated poverty turn out to be college towns, where the town-gown divide seems to be very real. State College, Pennsylvania (home to Penn State), has the highest level of poverty segregation in the country; Ann Arbor (University of Michigan) is fifth; Ames, Iowa (Iowa State) is eighth and New Haven (Yale University) is tenth. Madison, Wisconsin (University of Wisconsin); Boulder, Colorado (University of Colorado); Iowa City, Iowa (University of Iowa); and Champaign-Urbana, Illinois (University of Illinois), all suffer from relatively high levels of poverty segregation as well.

All around us are signs that our picayune efforts are meaningless, that the divides between rich and poor aren’t going to be narrowed by education. Yet we keep at it. I do, too. Why?

I like to tell the story about how I, when first taking a graduate course in Iowa City, would show up in my mechanic’s blue uniform, “VW” over one pocket and “Aaron” over the other, generally a red rag hanging from a back pocket. I wasn’t really working class, but I certainly was crossing between two worlds that, even then, had very little to do with each other. If my classmates thought I was a little weird, my co-workers did, more so. Few on either side had ever even talked with someone from the other. I knew even then that the different worlds in America aren’t coming together… and even realized that education wasn’t going to change that.

That was more than thirty years ago. In the meantime, for all our efforts, the divide has grown (and the “other” side has become poorer)–for all the talk elsewhere of “opportunity,” for all the apparent expansion of options. Even school “choice” is proving a chimera, a means of keeping well-to-do kids out of schools with the riffraff. Even with “choice,” where we come from influences where we will be today as much as it ever has.

None of our new opportunities make much difference for those who had few in the first place. Suzanne Mettler points out that:

More Americans than ever enroll in college, but the graduates who emerge a few years later indicate that instead of reducing inequality, our system of higher education reinforces it. Three out of four adults who grow up in the top quarter of the income spectrum earn baccalaureate degrees by age 24, but it’s only one out of three in the next quarter down. In the bottom half of the economic distribution, it’s less than one out of five for those in the third bracket and fewer than one out of 10 in the poorest.

Ronald Brownstein, writing in The Atlantic, says:

Those raised by parents with college degrees were vastly more likely than those raised by parents without degrees to say that their family encouraged them to attend college. Those from families with college experience were also much more likely to report that they themselves started college directly after finishing high school, and that they ultimately obtained a postsecondary degree.

It’s worse than that. As I said, no longer is getting a degree enough–not any degree, that is. Where it is from has become much more significant than it ever was before, adding another divide.

The college degrees that will do anything for a graduate’s career are, more and more, those from the more “elite” institutions. With greater and greater competition for fewer and fewer plum positions, this was as inevitable as it is continuation of a tradition as old as the nation. We’re seeing how bad this has become today even in the hiring of professors. Even institutions like my own, when hiring for the nationally-dwindling tenure track, have their pick of candidates. In fact, hiring committees in all fields almost anywhere must now plow through piles of CVs of qualified candidates. This leads, of course, to shortcuts: a PhD from Harvard or a book from Oxford University Press starts to mean more than, say, a track record of working successfully with a particular student population, a harder thing to evaluate. It’s the prestige of one’s pedigree that begins to matter most and not the work one has done or one’s own cultural experiences.

Pretty soon, the divide between our professors and their students is going to be wider than ever before.

Just like everything else in 21st century America.

Update: In today’s New York Times, in an editorial about “The College Faculty Crisis,” the editorial board writes, “College degrees worth having don’t come cheap.” They are discussing the growing reliance on adjuncts, especially at community colleges, but are, perhaps inadvertently, strengthening my case here. Over the past decades, we have (as a culture) pretended that the degree’s the thing (this is the impetus behind the growth of online for-profit college). But it is not. Where one gets the degree from matters at least as much, today, as the degree itself. This should not be the case. Unfortunately, it is.

3 thoughts on “Across the Great Divides? No More (Updated)

  1. The basic premise here is one I agree with, but I’m a little confused by an apparent contradiction in Richard Florida’s article:

    “Conversely, the large metros where the poor are the least segregated are mainly found in the Sunbelt and the West. . . .Many of these metros have lower wage service economies, but several are centers of high tech industry and knowledge work, including San Jose in the heart of Silicon Valley, as well as Portland, Oregon; Seattle, and Salt Lake City.”

    “The poor also face greater levels of segregation in more advanced, knowledge-based metros. The segregation of poverty is positively associated with the percent of adults that are college grads (.51), a commonly used indicator of human capital; the share of workers in knowledge, professional and creative jobs (.48); and the concentration of high tech industry (.47).”

    I’m curious what leads to such opposite observations from the same data. Is it that segregation is occurring on a larger scale than the “metro” boundary? One could argue that for San Jose, for example, where commuters may be coming from 50–75 miles away. Or is there some problem with the definition of the segregation measure that makes it sensitive to how the census tract boundaries are defined? (They look quite different in different parts of the country.) Or is it really a sociological difference between living patterns on the East Coast and West Coast?

  2. I think that the previous comment may be highlighting not just an apparent contradiction in Florida’s argument but a somewhat blurred complexity in your own argument.

    Correct me if I am wrong, but you are basically saying that a college degree has become a major factor in upward mobility and that among those who have earned college degrees, the reputations of the institutions at which they have earned those degrees is a further factor in the level of upward mobility that having a degree facilitates. Moreover, even though both of these factors have to some extent always determined upward mobility, they are now determining it much more singularly and pointedly. It is not just a deciding factor in who are the have’s and the have not’s; it is a deciding factor in who is in the top 5% of earners, the next 20% of earners, and the bottom 75% of earners–when the distinction between the earnings of the top 5% and the next 20% have become much greater–exponentially greater–than even the distinction between that 20% and the bottom 75%.

    So, Florida’s assertions about the town and gown economic demarcations being more pronounced in “college towns” does seem to serve to highlight that changed reality.

    But his extrapolation to broader geographic generalities seems almost on its face an admission of over-simplification, an over-extension. Note that Florida seems to be focusing on major public universities. In all “college towns,” but especially in those “college towns,” the “town” populations (those not enrolled at or directly employed by the universities) are generally fairly small–and often not much larger than the university population (students, faculty, and staff)–simply because the universities are generally the major employer and economic driver in those communities. But the broader economic impact of the universities is generally regional, with the closest large metropolitan areas attracting businesses that wish to take advantage of the universities’ major research efforts. So, I don’t see how any sort of meaningful comparison can be drawn between the impact of universities on income inequality within “college towns” and in much larger metropolitan areas because the economic impact of universities located in “college towns” and within the metropolitan areas themselves cannot possibly be segregated in that manner.

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