“If the ladder of educational opportunity rises high at the doors of some youth and scarcely rises at the doors of others, while at the same time formal education is made a prerequisite to occupational and social advance, then education may become the means, not of eliminating race and class distinctions, but of deepening and solidifying them.”
This quote is 75 years old, but, shockingly, it could have been written without revision yesterday. It comes from President Truman’s 1947 Commission on Higher Education, and despite the intervening generations, the Truman Report affirms two commonly held beliefs that contemporary research makes unassailable. The first and central conviction is that obtaining a college education is a pathway to the American middle class. The second tenet is that inadequate access or inability to complete a college degree will not simply prevent citizens from reaching the middle class—it may serve as the preeminent barrier to that goal. And that’s a concern for our entire country.
When we compare the lifetime earnings of college graduates to those individuals who never enter postsecondary education or who earn college credits without getting a degree, the growth in personal income over a lifetime remains remarkably high. According to The College Payoff Report from Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, a bachelor’s degree is worth $2.8 million over the course of a lifetime. Bachelor’s degree holders earn 31 percent more than those with an associate degree and 84 percent more than those with just a high school diploma.
With the completion of a bachelor’s degree so central to an individual’s trajectory to the middle class, the public servants of Truman’s generation provided us with an ominous but all-too-clear warning that has only deepened with time. If we’re not careful, our postsecondary education system will reinforce rather than ameliorate our country’s intergenerational poverty. That’s because if you’re born poor in America, you’re simply not that likely to obtain the life-long benefits of completing a bachelor’s degree.
How unlikely? Recent reports confirm just an 11 percent degree-attainment rate for students coming from the lowest income quartile. Put another way—as we address in our book “Beyond Free College: Making Higher Education Work for 21st Century Students”—this means that nearly 90 percent of our country’s poorest students will never graduate with a four-year degree. Moreover, it also means that those brave enough to face these almost insurmountable odds against them may end up with a trifecta of bad outcomes: some college credit but no degree to enhance their lifetime earnings; substantial college loan debt; and no clear way of repaying the investments they made in their future.
This astounding statistic—that for our poorest students, nearly 90 percent don’t earn a degree—serves as a powerful reminder that the promise and hope of U.S. higher education remains shockingly unfulfilled. It is true that college transforms both lives and livelihoods, but only for students with the financial means and wherewithal to complete a degree. The solution to intergenerational poverty is within our reach—especially for those of us who believe in the transformative power of higher education.
The difficulty low-income people face completing college and finding sustainable jobs is not just a problem for individuals or families, but for our entire society. The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in January was only the most recent reminder that large portions of the U.S. population feel little or no stake in foundational structures of our democracy. That story is perhaps more authentically told in the quiet vignettes of people struggling in the recently released film “Nomadland” (2020). Individuals, even entire families—reminiscent of the displaced Midwestern farmers in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”—in the film find themselves with no place to live and no jobs to work.
If our nation’s most fiscally under-resourced students aren’t provided a clear and viable pathway that leads to equitable success and graduation, how do we ever reclaim our nation’s promise to them of the possibility of upward mobility?
There is a way forward. The current Biden legislation under consideration by Congress has some exciting possibilities for truly moving the dial on intergenerational poverty. Not only does it propose to increase Pell grant funding levels, it also contains investments for evidence-based strategies that strengthen degree completion and retention rates.
But we need to do more. We need to provide our most underserved students with the social supports that will allow them to tackle the reasonable academic challenges of completing a college degree. Such things as resources to cover housing, food, child care, transportation and books. There are models already in place, such as the ASAP program at CUNY, which provide students not only with the academic support they need to complete a degree, but also with the resources that help them get to class, such as transportation and child care (more than a quarter of all undergraduate students are raising children).
We know this comprehensive approach works. And because the degree completion rates soar for students provided with wraparound support, the cost-per-degree completed actually falls. As a result, the long-term benefits to America powerfully accumulate. Our calculus is simple. For that 90 percent of our nation’s most vulnerable students, we must provide the tangible life supports that make completing a bachelor’s degree possible. If the promise of equal and equitable access to higher education in our country is affirmed, our collective investment in our nation’s democracy will be deepened and sustained.