Bridging the Higher Education Divide

“In our nation’s struggle to promote social mobility ….education has always been a key driver,” notes the Century Foundation’s president in the foreword to Bridging the Higher Education Divide.  (Can be downloaded free.) Like so many of their reports, the book is useful call for some rethinking about the underfunding of community colleges as well as their impact on racial and class segregation.

Alas, it also rests on a common myth that distorts our understanding of our history.  Colin Greer’s study The Great School Legend (Basic Books, 1972) is old, but not outdated.  Educational mobility largely followed after economic mobility, not before, and blossomed for many American immigrant populations only after the working class became America’s middle class.

Unfortunately soon after Colin’s book appeared the American economy began to reverse itself and the new middle class moved backwards.  And, alas, people of color were just entering the middle class as this new trend picked up speed. The 2008 financial debacle has above all injured the African American and Latino middle class.

Myths are powerful.  They can mislead, and this one has done us much damage.

p.s.  Read this new Century Foundation Report alongside rereading Richard Rothstein’s The Way We Were, also a Century Foundation report from 1998, as well as Colin Greer.

10 Responses

  1. THE WAY WE WERE? by Rothstein is a must-read.

    So are his CLASS AND SCHOOLS from 2004 and GRADING EDUCATION from 2008.

    Then there are these free on-line articles:


  2. I always wonder who liberals think are the ‘middle class’.

    Clearly not the people in my small town, whose population has shrunk, but whose buying power is shown by the string of storefronts that have grown up over my life. Like almost every town and borough across the nation, where there was a single grocery, a small pharmacy, a few small clothing and specialty stores; there now are long rows of glistening storefronts. Where there was a couple of lunch counters and mom-and-pop breakfast places, there are now those and more, plus six chain stores that each must serve hundreds of guests per day to pay the bills.

    Someone must be buying something there to pay the rent.

    It’s not merely ‘the rich’ patronizing all these places. Nor the dozens of chain restaurants here and in the nearer big towns.

    If the middle class has so shrunk, who is buying all this food and stuff?!

    • You are not serious that because you see some businesses in your town surviving you don’t think the rich poor divide is growing? That is your evidence?

      Well, some do survive, but statistics and looking around the town I know show that small businesses in general are having a harder and harder time. Individual towns and businesses of course will vary due to local conditions.But to use anecdotal evidence like that to claim the middle class is not shrinking is like saying my kid is doing well in school, so schools are fine. Buying power for all groups the but the richest has shrunk in general over the last 30 years (again trends will vary form year to year), that is just a fact. They have rebounded form the worst of the 2008 crash, but that is not to say they are doing well.

    • I have not heard any economist left or right dispute the claim of the gap–it is the solution to it that they dispute (or even if a solution should be found. Many conservative I talk to think letting the rich get richer at the expense of the rest is a good thing).

    • Ed, if you insist on viewing the country through your biased lenses, Ed, you’ll always manage to twist reality into the vision you already have. Your track record in that regard is all-too-well-known.

      On a national level, the middle-class has shrunk dramatically. Of course people still buy things. You are aware of how over-indebted the average American is, right? You’ve heard about being upside-down on one’s mortgage, yes? Do we REALLY need to lay out all the evidence that the middle class has shrunk, while the percentage of people below the poverty line has grown (to an obscene level)?

      Oh, wait. Time to backtrack, right Ed. Of course those things are real. But they’re the fault of Obama, Democratic “control” of the Senate, Communists, Socialists, liberals, progressives, and blah, blah, blah. Wake up, Ed. You’re just part of the 99%, perhaps with more crumbs than some of us, but not enough to justify your licking the boots of your masters.

  3. Nicholas, the gap IS hard to locate, though I think we can all agree that a large segment of America COULD have done better since 1970 than they have.

    Conservatives make one huge mistake in this. They assume that the Federal minimum wage acts merely as a floor. In their view, as long as the equilibrium (market) wage for labor is ABOVE this minimum, then no damage is done. (They instead fear the damage that too high a minimum wage will cause new jobs not to be created, which we can see all over America).

    However! The minimum wage is not merely a floor. It actively pulls some wages DOWN to it’s level. It does this because it lowers the perceived value of a laborer. Conservatives never acknowledge this!

    The problem is that a single federal minimum wage makes no more sense than having one size bra to fit all women. A fair wage in rural N. Dakota is certainly not enough where the wonks live in NY and DC.

  4. Nicolas, I did not say that ‘some businesses are surviving’. I said (more or less) that business volume is probably ten times what it was, in a town whose population has not grown.

    But that certainly is not just here. Consumer purchases everywhere have skyrocketed.

    Let’s put it this way: I will give you an average teacher’s salary of today ($50,000). You can have that $50,000 now OR, I will send you back to 1978 with it. Not just the then-present value of the money, no. I will give you the full $50,000 to live on for a year in 1970.

    Think about what you can buy with that money in 1978 dollars. Food, clothing, auto, travel, everything.

    Would you take the deal?

    • Thank you for making my point for me. Clearly from your example the buying power of the middle class today is not what it was. While inflation has risen the cost of consumer goods, and energy and gas prices soar, average salaries for the middle and working class are stagnant at best, meaning their standard of living is lower. (Meanwhile wages for the rich continue to rise at rate much higher than inflation).

      • Nicolas, think about what I wrote here. Use your eyes, not to read, but to see.

        With $50,000, would you rather have a $80 a month cell phone free long distance with all the Internet bandwidth you can use,…or pay AT&T the 1978 exorbitant toll call rates and go to a 3000 sq ft library for all your information needs?

        Would you rather pay DirecTV $80 a month, or rely on CBS, NBC, ABC, and PBS for all your home information and entertainment?

        Would you take the limited food choices afforded by that at the small grocery, or the vast choices available now?

        Just think about a car. If your car budget was $8,000, would you want to buy in 2013 or 1978? Which would buy you more transportation?

        How about travel? How many people could afford even a vacation 500 miles away in 1978? How many take them much farther and longer now?

        Restaurants? In 1978, how many choices were at the local mall? (~2) How many now? (~30).

        Books? How many people bought books in 1978? Very few. How many patronize Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Books-A-Million now? Almost everyone.

        Movie theaters? In 1978, a choice of maybe four screens. Now? Probably 20.

        Gifts and antiques? Who bought any of these in 1978? Only the well off. Now, my teacher and factory-worker friends spend tons of money on these things?

        Home decorating? You went to the local hardware for paint. Now every town has 2 paint stores, and every mall area a Lowes and a Home Depot, with hundreds of people streaming through constantly.

        Music? Remember the transistor radio? Live music? How many more options available now (10x).

        And then there’s medicine. In ’78 we all drove 30-40-50 miles to the hospital for anything beyond the local family practitioner’s care. Today surgical centers, specialists, stat-care centers, fitness centers, clinics are in every small town. In 1978, people with bad knees suffered and sat. Today they walk bravely on into their 80s and 90s. If you had a heart attack, you probably died. Now you’ll probably live. Trauma? Then a driver with bandages. Now. everyone has access to high-skilled EMT’s and life-flite.

        The ‘Middle class” (and even most poor) of 2013 live better than the Kings of any age before.

        (Unless your only viewport is the writings of liberal academics.)

    • By the way I have no idea where you come up with your figures, since they do not match any that I have ever seen published anywhere by either conservatives or liberals.

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