The Myth of American Universities as Inequality-Fighters

By | August 31, 2017

How can the U.S. solve the problem of lasting poverty? For some, the answer starts with education. Many studies show that young people who go to college earn more than their non-college peers and that teenagers from poor families that attend selective schools especially benefit. While the country’s neighborhoods may be stratified, and its boardrooms may be biased, at least the nation’s best universities can help students from poor families become thriving workers.


Kind of. In a fascinating new paper published this summer, five economists, Raj Chetty, John Friedman, Emmanuel Saez, Nicholas Turner, and Danny Yagan, call into question higher education’s role in promoting upward mobility. The centerpiece of the paper is “mobility report cards” for each college in America. The researchers considered 30 million students between 1999 and 2014 and compared their parents’ incomes to their own post-college earnings, by school. With this data, they could see exactly which colleges helped the most students rise from the bottom of the earnings ladder to the top.

They found that America’s top universities are largely closed to the poor, merely helping well-off students remain well-off. The best schools for helping low-income students become high-income graduates are accepting fewer and fewer kids from poor families. (The Atlantic)

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