How a college education went from helping create upward class mobility to being one of the leading causes of social inequality. And why it needs to radically change for us to have any hopes of a more equitable society (Part 2)

(This is Part 2 of a multi-part series that will look at the proliferation of college graduates that started to emerge in the 20th century, the soaring costs of education, and how that dynamic is a key contributor to the rising social inequality we see today. In later parts of this series we’ll look at what needs to be fixed in the college education system so that colleges are rewarding merit and not privilege and adding value to incoming college freshman instead of merely amassing wealthy constituents at expensive country clubs)

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Part 2:

History of Modern College Education

Getting a college education did not always used to be like this. In 1947 the percent of the population that was college educated was 5.45%. By 2017 this was 34.15%.1

So why was a college education less important to Americans in 1947 than it is today? The answer starts with the GI Bill.

While in 1947 only 5.45% of the population had college degrees, by 2017 this number was 34.15%. (Source: U.S. Census Bureau)

Prior to 1944, a college education was reserved for the wealthy elites and pure academics of our society. But fearing the possibility of millions of U.S. veterans who risked their lives abroad in World War II only to return home to a jobless future, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the GI Bill which allowed veterans to attend college subsidized by the U.S. government. The strategy worked. Faced with either unemployment or the opportunity to go to college, millions of U.S. veterans enrolled in higher education. By 1947, veterans accounted for 49% of all college admissions. When the original GI Bill ended on July 25, 1956, 7.8 million of the 16 million World War II veterans had participated in an educational or training program sponsored by the bill.2

The timing of government subsidization of a college education coincided with a post-World War II economic expansion in the 1950s and 1960s that saw GDP growth that averaged 4% a year in the 1950s and 5% a year in the 1960s.3

While the reasons behind this economic expansion have been attributed to both improvements in productivity and infrastructure, the end result is that employers changed their views from wanting unskilled labor that they could hire at low wages to do repetitive tasks in factory-like settings, to highly skilled labor that could think critically, innovate, and create better products and services. And where better to find skilled labor that were trained to think critically than on a college campus?

As such, more companies began demanding that their employees have college degrees. So while having a college degree was optional in the 1940s to 1950s in order to have a decent paying non-physical labor job, in today’s environment a college degree is mandatory to have those same opportunities. Furthermore, the difference between the end of the  ”Golden Age of Capitalism,” as the post World War II economic boom is known by, and now is that the cost of college has significantly increased in relation to real median household income.

In other words, today’s generation is paying a larger amount of their potential future earnings just to have a college degree and be no wealthier today than their parents were in 1971. And what’s worse is that households that used to require only one income earner in 1971 now require two income-earners to support the household. So today’s American households are paying twice as much as their parents to go to college just to earn the right to work more hours and have the same real income that their parents had more than 45 years ago.

Real median income has not increased for American households since 1971. But the cost of college in relation to this median income has. In 2016, just 1 year of a college education at a private college was almost 80% of median household income. A typical college degree requires four years of study. (Source: CollegeBoard.Org, CensusBureau)
Today’s American households are increasingly dependent on dual incomes whereas in 1971 a larger percentage of households just relied on the father working. In spite of this, real median income has not increased for today’s generation of working parents in relation to their 1971 counterparts.

So why has the cost of college skyrocketed while real median incomes have stagnated? If college really improves the quality of an employee, shouldn’t real median incomes have increased as the population became more college-educated?

In this series on college education we’ll look at how college has been transformed from a public enterprise meant to improve the skillset and critical thinking abilities of its population into a capitalistic business enterprise that brings in more than $500 billion revenue while churning out college graduates who excel at taking tests, but not at critical thinking. In a vicious cycle, the lack of critical thinking amongst college graduates has forced employers to devalue the attainment of a college degree.

So instead of looking at college graduates as the problem solvers of tomorrow, employers view them as replaceable low-skilled labor and both treat and pay them as such. For an employer, a college degree no longer means that an employee has the ability to outperform other candidates—it merely means that the employee had the discipline to follow societal rules and do what they were told to—namely to get a college degree. Such attributes make college graduates great at following orders but not at fundamentally innovating the way an existing company operates. 70 years ago our society wanted critical thinkers who could innovate the way America does business and get away from the factory-worker mentality. Now we’ve gone back to a society that wants workers that are essentially factory workers who do what they’re told, don’t ask questions, and don’t challenge authority. The only difference is that today’s generation of factory workers are really good with computers as opposed to those of 70 years ago.

Furthermore, as college admission has gotten both more competitive and more expensive the entire college experience has been geared towards the upper echelon of society who can afford to pay the increasing costs. The college experience for the elite of society is fundamentally different for those of lower socio-economic statuses. The opportunities available to those college graduates from lower socio-economic statuses is not the same as those of their wealthier counterparts either. So while college used to allow upward mobility, the high costs of attendance and limited value-add it provides means that is now a barrier-to-entry to a middle class lifestyle that only the rich can afford in the first place. We’ll conclude this series by looking at the steps that need to fundamentally change in both the college education process in order to add economic value to their incoming students and for employers to foster an environment that values critical thinking and the development of a more productive society.

1. U.S. Census Bureau. “Historical Time Series Tables, Educational Attainment-Table A2”
2. US Department of Veterans Affairs. Available at:

3. US Bureau of Economic Analysis. Available at:

How a college education went from helping create upward class mobility to being one of the leading causes of social inequality. And why it needs to radically change for us to have any hopes of a more equitable society. (Part 1)

(This is Part 1 of a multi-part series that will look at the proliferation of college graduates that started to emerge in the 20th century, the soaring costs of education, and how that dynamic is a key contributor to the rising social inequality we see today. In later parts of this series we’ll look at what needs to be fixed in the college education system so that colleges are rewarding merit and not privilege and adding value to incoming college freshman instead of merely amassing wealthy constituents at expensive country clubs)

Part 1:

Part 2:

On March 12, 2019 it was revealed that Rick Singer, a college admissions consultant, had received nearly $25 million over the course of eight years from parents looking to help get their children into the elite college of their choice. While the amount he earned might seem large, the concept of college admissions consulting is nothing new.

With acceptance rates at elite colleges being in the low single digits, and even mid-tier colleges having average SAT ranges for accepted freshman in the 1400s, being accepted at a “good” college is becomingly an increasingly selective process reserved for only a small minority of college applicants.
So it’s no wonder that for years now that the upper middle class and the wealthy have been paying for SAT tutoring, essay editing, and overall college application reviews to give these select individuals an added edge in the admissions process.

What separated Singer, however, was that he took this “added edge” to extraordinary levels. Instead of helping tutor students in how to take the SAT, Singer helped pay for well qualified individuals to take the SAT for them. Instead of encouraging kids to take on a sport as an extracurricular to increase their admission chances, he bribed college coaches to help admit the students as part of the given athletic team—even if the student had never played the sport. For these services, Singer charged exorbitant fees of anywhere from tens of thousands to millions of dollars. And eager parents were more than willing to pay them.

The moral outrage from the public was quick and absolute. The parents who paid these bribes were ostracized and their children were forced to seek refuge from the public shame of having been admitted on less equitable terms as everyone else. The overarching public sentiment was that these parents had privately defiled the hallowed ground of college admissions in which students are supposed to be admitted purely on merit and not the undue influence of lobbyists on their behalf. And here in lies the problem—not with the parents, but with us in the general public who are outraged at the fact that these few rich parents manipulated the college system to their child’s advantage but not with the fact that the entire college system and process has been structured into a business over the past few decades to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor in society who can neither afford to pay for it and do not obtain the same networking or economic benefits post-graduation as their rich counterparts do.

So why are we so quick to blame the few parents who blatantly subverted the college admissions process and not the hundreds of thousands of parents who have been doing it for years? And why is the underlying college system that has been allowing this to happen not been held accountable and asked to change?

The answer at the core is our flawed, but continued belief in this concept that America is a meritocracy and its economic, judicial, and civil systems are fair. So the court of public opinion is always quick to convict a few scapegoats because it allows us to continue believing that the underlying process is fair and that the problem lies with the few who manipulate the underlying system and not with the actual system itself. If we’re forced to open our eyes and admit that the underlying system is flawed, then not only must we acknowledge our complicity in it, but our entire belief system in an America that solely rewards merit and not privilege is turned on its head. And that’s more than we are willing to admit to ourselves. But if we truly want a more meritocratic college system—and country as a whole—this is exactly what needs to happen.

Racial bias and treatment exists even amidst class equality

Came across an interesting article the other day (okay fine, it was 6 months ago but I’m just getting around to talking about it now) in the New York Times that in depth review of a sociological study by Harvard and Stanford researchers on the effects of class and race on the future economic outcomes of various populations.

Essentially what the researchers found was that while there was little difference in incomes of black women vs white women raised in the same economic class, there was a HUGE difference in the economic outcomes of black men versus white men raised in the same economic class.

So what might some reasons for this disparity be and what are actionable steps that can be made in light of these findings?

Before we dive into this extremely complicated issue, I’d highly recommend you read the actual article which can be found here:

Here are some important findings from the research:

  • Black men consistently earn less than their white male counterparts regardless if they were born rich or poor.
  • No such income gap exists between black and white women raised in similar households.
  • As household income increases, the chance of a child from that household being incarcerated in the future as an adult decreases for both black and white children. However, there is a huge disparity between the two populations. The sons of black families from the top 1 percent (annual income >$421,926) had about the same chance of being incarcerated on a given day as the sons of white families earning $36,000.
  • A black man raised in a household with 2 parents in the top 10% (income around $140,000 per year) had the same income as an adult as a white child raised by a single mother making only $60,000 per year.

So let’s pose some general thought questions for our readers to think about as we talk about these issues:

  • Why are poor white boys able to escape poverty at a higher rate than poor black boys?
  • Why are rich black boys not able to stay rich when they become adults as their rich white counterparts are?
  • Why is there no such income gap between white women and black women that come from similar economic backgrounds?
  • If having two parents in a household is so important, why is that black children from rich two parent households have similar incomes as white children from poor single parent households?

Here’s why this study is crucially important:

  • Liberal ideology in American tends to believe in the “I don’t see color” mythology—namely that it is not race that affects economic outcomes, but class. According to this viewpoint, the reason blacks are not achieving success in America is because they come from poorer neighborhoods than whites. This study throws that theory on its face as rich black boys have significantly lower levels of income and higher rates of incarceration as their rich white counterparts. So it’s not class that prevents economic success for black boys—it really is the social prejudices and constraints that are imposed on black boys purely for being black boys in America
  • Any solution going forward to fix this disparity in economic outcomes has to focus on eliminating the disadvantages faced by black boys purely for being black boys while also eliminating the privileges afforded to white children simply for being white. This would a more constructive and effective “I don’t see color” approach than the approach that has historically been taken with regards to improving the outcomes of black children.

So now let’s dive right in.

A common idea proposed in neoliberal circles is that it’s not the disadvantages associated with race that impinge upward economic mobility, but rather it’s the class obstacles that infringe on this pursuit of the American dream. As African-Americans in America have lower household incomes than their white counterparts, the theory upholds that its this class disadvantage—and not racial bias—that results in the disparate economic outcomes observed in these two populations.

This study essentially throws that theory on its face. If this theory were true, then black children and white children from the same economic upbringing would have similar income levels as adults. This study shows the exact opposite; namely that given the same economic upbringing as children, black boys make significantly less as adults than white boys who grew up with similar class advantages.

This finding points to racial bias as the true culprit here. More conservative factions of America refuse to accept this. They use tropes about flaws with in black family as the reason behind these widely differing outcomes as opposed to disparities about how blacks are treated in America versus whites. This study counters that as well.

As the study points out, blacks do tend to grow up in communities with less father figures than white counterparts of similar incomes. However, even black children who grew up in wealthy two parent households were at a significant disadvantage than their white counterparts. In fact, as the study points out, a black man raised in a household with 2 parents in the top 10% (income around $140,000 per year) had the same income as an adult as a white child raised by a single mother making only $60,000 per year.

So if white boys from poor single parent households are achieving the same economic success as black boys from wealthy two parent households clearly the problem is not any inherent issues with the traditional black family. Social conservative critics point to a lack of black fathers in black neighborhoods—and clearly black communities have a lack of black fathers present in their communities as compared to white communities.

Conservative critics often point to this issue of lack of black fathers in the community as the sole reason for the lack of equal opportunity and equal outcomes for blacks versus whites. However, this inference lacks context and confuses correlation with causation. Lack of black fathers did not cause the racial disparities we see here; rather, racial disparities in the treatment of black men versus white men in our society caused a destruction of the black family which removed black fathers from the community and forced black women to pick up the slack of raising children by themselves.

So while the study shows that black women have the same income as white women of the same background, the inference that there isn’t a wage gap here should not be automatically deduced without further research. Perhaps the reason black women are making the same income as white women of similar backgrounds here is really because black women are working longer hours and multiple jobs to support their families as the sole breadwinner for their family while white women (who have higher marriage rates) have the luxury of either being stay-at-home moms or career women with higher wages than similarly qualified black women such that on average the incomes of white women of similar economic backgrounds are equal to their overworked, underpaid black women counterparts? Again, more research and critical thinking needs to be done here by both researchers and society at large.

Unemployment levels for black men have historically been higher than white men. Is that because black men don’t want to work or because American society doesn’t want to hire them? Black families live in poorer communities with higher crime and poorer educational facilities and fewer opportunities for advancement not because they don’t want better communities and access, but because American society doesn’t want blacks living in their nice, well-to-do, protected neighborhoods. When black families try and move into such neighborhoods en masse, whites invariably move out taking their higher income levels, opportunities, and access with them.

Black men over the past 40 years have been incarcerated at unprecedented levels in relation to their white counterparts. This is not because blacks inherently are predisposed to being criminals, but because America is predisposed to locking them up.

So what are the impacts on the black family and black psyche when you refuse to let them live in your nice neighborhoods, deny them access to educational opportunities that are crucial for upward mobility, refuse to hire black men for jobs with livable wages and then overincarcerate such men and force black women to pick up the slack? Would not any issue we observe in the black community be a direct result of unequal treatment levied upon them by American society at large?

There is no problem with black culture or black attitude that is not a direct result of injustices placed upon their community. Hence, the solution to the problem has to be rooted in two core areas: removal of the barriers to equality currently present for the black community and deeper investment from American society into black communities and black families to build them back up from the devastation we have inflicted upon them.

Liberal ideology tends to focus on paternalistic band-aid benefits for black communities that does not  focus on long-term solutions and empowerment of black communities. Instead liberals focus on providing healthcare and benefits to help support them, but not on providing them with the skills, resources, investments and job opportunities such that they can build up their communities in alignment with their own vision and right to self-determination such that they can acquire wealth, healthcare, and the ability to pursue the American dream like the rest of us on their own.

So when you look at businesses in poor black communities are they owned and run by black people in the community who then reinvest back into that community or are they owned by non-black individuals who don’t live in the community who open up delis, liquor stores, and bodegas make money off black people and then take that money back to the actual community they live in and reinvest it there?

When we look at schools and non-profit organizations in the black community are they run by non-black individuals from outside the community who are more focused on getting kids to act in accordance with white standards of behavior and imposing their own ideology upon them rather than on connecting with them as people and helping them work through their own life issues which they can personally relate and identify with?

Should not the police and government organizations that dictate policy with regards to how black communities are governed not be directly run and influenced by the people of that community?

Or should we continue as outsiders to enrich ourselves at the expense of the black community while denying them the right of self-governance and simultaneously mandating that the path to equality solely rests in getting black people to listen and take outside support without offering any substantive path to liberty?

These are the questions we need to ask ourselves and the discussion we need to be having.