Social immobility

Social mobility may be decreasing in the U.S., says The Economist.

Upward mobility is increasingly determined by education. The income of people with just a high-school diploma was flat in 1975-99, whereas that of people with a bachelor’s degree rose substantially, and that of people with advanced degrees rocketed.

The education system is increasingly stratified by social class, and poor children have a double disadvantage. They attend schools with fewer resources than those of their richer contemporaries (school finances are largely determined by local property taxes). And they have to deal with the legacy of what Michael Barone, a conservative commentator, has labelled “soft America.” Soft America is allergic to introducing accountability and measurement in education, particularly if it takes the form of merit pay for successful teachers or rewards for outstanding pupils. Dumbed-down schools are particularly harmful to poor children, who are unlikely to be able to compensate for them at home.

Few students at elite universities come from low-income or working-class families.

Three-quarters of the students at the country’s top 146 colleges come from the richest socio-economic fourth, compared with just 3% who come from the poorest fourth (the median family income at Harvard, for example, is $150,000).

On the other hand, Who needs Ivy?, Slate asks. Fewer top corporate executives come from Ivy League or elite private universities.

On a percentage basis, fewer Ivy League graduates than public school graduates today need to find stable, high-paying jobs at big companies. More of them can afford to traipse around Asia for a year or pursue a career in film-making. It could be that the already rich and comfortable are simply less interested in pursuing careers in large corporations than their less-comfortable public-school peers for purely economic reasons.

When Ivy grads do go into business, they choose investment banking, not General Motors.

About Joanne


  1. Thanks Joanne for this. I want to talk to my students about it. What can we do in schools to help them become engines for social mobility? There must be something better than what we’re doing.

  2. I find this news to be particularly distressing. The essence of the American Experience has been our long tradition of upward social mobility.

    Opportunities for upward mobility need to be broadened. Effective educational reform will go a long way toward accomplishing that aim.

  3. Walter E. Wallis says:

    What a crock! Education has always been available in this country to the extent students avail themselves. The one lack in anyone now uneducated is the desire to work toward an education. Stop making excuses for them, they are born with excuses and don’t need any more.

  4. Walter,

    I sense the threat to social mobility comes from the fact that employers are looking at education by how many pretty lil’ pieces of paper, aka degrees, one has managed to rack up, NOT how much one actually knows. As many here can attest to, intelligence and skills are not always dependent on what level of academic degree one has.

  5. Walter E. Wallis says:

    A lot of those middle management jobs they used to hold open for grads just because they didn’t want to share the executive dining room with riffraff have been taken over by computer programs or shipped overseas. About the only employment open to beautiful drones any more is in government.

  6. We live in a culture that deifies athletes who leave college early or avoid college altogether; inarticulate, misogynist rappers; heiresses whose profound ignorance makes a compelling argument against inherited wealth; and we wonder why kids don’t take their education seriously enough. Social mobility is viewed as an overnight “worst to first” phenomenon rather than something that is earned through education and hard work over time.

  7. There’s an interesting article over at about educational inflation that y’all may be interested in:

  8. Robert Schwartz says:

    Thursday’s New York Times College Degree Still Pays, but It’s Leveling Off. There is a danger is looking to the past to predict the future. In the past, a College Degree, especially from an elite school, was a marker for something else, either the holder was an upper class wasp male or he was a very bright and ambitious person.

    Times have changed, elite schools have a different mix of students now, much more female and much more non-white than they were in the 1950s and 60s, and they will not necessarily follow the same career paths that their predeccesors did.

    It makes intuitive sense that a degree from an elite college is a good leg up into the corporate and governmental bureaucracies that dominate modern America. However, there is no reason to believe that riches, fame or political power will devolve on those bureaucrats. On the contrary we might inuit that their risk adverse mentalities might prevent them from climbing that high. Too much looking down and back makes one dizzy and slows progress too much.

    There was a story in the Wall Street journal Thurs 1/13/05 (sorry no url) about Andrew Beal who has made more than a billion dollars since droping out of Michigan State U to rehab houses and going on to start his own bank. Of course Bill Gates dropped out of college, but not before he stole the computer time to produce his first version of Basic.

    Look at it this way, every year 4 million kids turn 18 in the US. In the Ivy Leauge and the 8 or ten next most prestigious elite colleges (Stanford Duke Amherst etc), — lets pick 20 schools for the sake of round number — there are an average of say — and this is high — 1,500 seats in each incomming class, half of which go to athletes legacies and development cases. So there are 15,000 seats in those elite colleges for those 4 million kids available for open academic competiton. It is clear that not all of those seats go to the 15,000 brightest kids in each year, because at that age you cammot necessarily pick them out. You will get 15,000 bright kids but a lot of them will be suck-ups, grinds or children of over ambitious parents who have pushed them too hard. By the same token, there will be really bright kids lost in poverty, drug abuse, crime, adolecent rebellion or simply a world of their own.

    What I am saying is that there is a lot of talent in this country and there are a lot of doors open it. I am not particullarly worried. I do not think we are turnning into France, where tout le monde (which is to say everybody who is anybody worth mentioning) must graduate from one of the Grand Ecoles (I do not care if my French is wrong, I despise the little $%;@&$).