Why Are Americans Angry? Maybe Education’s Doing the Opposite of What We Think

Why Are Americans Angry? Maybe Education’s Doing the Opposite of What We Think
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Holiday Clinkscale II waves an American flag as he joins thousands of people of protesters in downtown downtown Raleigh, N.C., Saturday Feb. 8, 2014. (AP photo)

RCEd Commentary

Why are Americans so angry?

In recent polls, nearly half of Americans say they’re angry: and the popularity of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, despite wildly different styles and points of view, stems from this emotion.

RealClearPolitics polls show that over 60 percent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track. Despite a seasonally adjusted drop in unemployment from 10 percent in October 2009 to 5 percent last October, many people worry that only the wealthy benefit from economic gains, or that technology will make their jobs obsolete. Many groups—including people of color, returning veterans, women, and rural Americans—think the American Dream doesn’t work for them.

Since the 1800s, education has been seen as the best way to level the playing field in America. Yet our educational system seems to be contributing to the closing, not opening, of pathways of mobility.

The problem with higher education

Historically, rising educational attainment went hand-in-hand with rising prosperity. The “high school movement” in the 20th Century prepared millions of people to work in all sorts of jobs, both new and old. A century ago, less than 10 percent of Americans graduated from high school; that skyrocketed to nearly 80 percent by the 1970s. The high school movement was a crucial vehicle of upward mobility.

College attendance, too, has moved from the minority to the norm. In the 1920s, less than 10 percent of Americans had graduated from college; today, two-thirds of high school students continue onto college. Yet other nations have caught up. In 2000, the United States ranked second in college degree attainment among 25-34 year olds. By 2012, we ranked 12th.

Slow growth in college graduation is not, however, our biggest challenge. We’ve sent millions of students to college on the premise that they’ll earn the “skill premium” that accrues to those with a degree. As it turns out, there is enormous variation in who graduates from college and what they reap from their education. For many, we’ve sold an empty promise.

College access: helping or hurting mobility?

Economist Nathaniel Hilger has found that rising college enrollment over the past several decades actually detracted from intergenerational mobility. How can that be? Because of inadequate secondary educations, a significant share of students simply isn’t prepared for college: once there, many students fail to finish. Of those who attend college, 60 percent graduate with a degree within six years.

Additionally, not all colleges are the same—especially for low-income students. Changes in higher education financing have led to “resource stratification,” with top-50 universities consuming more resources at the expense of other schools. Attending a two-year school, or a four-year school that is not ranked in the top 50, means that college may not pay off as expected.

In 1970, only 6 percent of low-income students had received a bachelor’s degree by age 24; by 2013, that had risen to only 9 percent. By contrast, bachelor’s degree attainment for the highest-income group rose from 40 percent in 1970 to 77 percent in 2013. Students from low-income families are more likely to attend for-profit or two-year public institutions. This, in turn, has helped create the large student debt challenge. Rising defaults and delinquencies on student debt are concentrated among students at for-profit and two-year schools, and among “non-traditional borrowers” from low-income families.

Potential solutions emerging?

No wonder Americans are angry: many have realized that college access is not the same thing as college success. Fortunately, the conversation may be changing. Organizations such as the Lumina and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundations have adjusted their mission from college access to college completion. The Kauffman Foundation, through its Kauffman Scholars program, is intensively focused on college success for lower-income students. Virginia-based startup Vemo Education has partnered with Purdue University to provide financing to students contingent on future income.

Vocational education is moving from a negative signal to a solution: the Pathways to Prosperity Network is leading a movement to resuscitate vocational education to get more students career ready, and the incipient credentialing movement is gaining momentum.

Finally, some organizations are trying to strengthen the pipeline of employee recruitment. Rather than reliance on conventional methods, startups such as Shortlist and Blendoor seek to end the “CV + interview” model of recruitment. This, ideally, will expand the scope of candidates that employers consider for jobs.

Will a better pathway to a career out of college assuage angry Americans? Maybe. But we also need to rethink the orientation of our higher education system. An aging and diversifying population may not lend itself to the fixed and linear nature of today’s institutions and their financing structure. The rush to “career ready” education may short-circuit the generalist education that is important for many types of businesses, as well as for entrepreneurial ventures. Indeed, the state of higher education—opaque pricing, divergent outcomes, and institutional variation—presents many opportunities for innovation.

Without action, Americans’ anger will not subside. Most Americans face a narrower set of options today than in past years, and reforming higher education will help rekindle economic mobility. Entrepreneurs, universities, and other organizations must work to create new lifelong learning opportunities. We need more information on the different links between fields of study, employment earnings and, just as importantly, skills. Most of all, we need public and private leaders who appeal to aspiration rather than anger, and can inspire Americans to a new era of education.

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