At an African community event some time ago, a guest listening to the introductions joked that he had never seen that large an assembly of medical doctors, college professors and assorted professionals in one room. “How d’you all do it?” he asked.
With much fear and trembling, I said to myself, recalling the common stories we trade about school days back home: the terror of national entrance exams for high school and college admission; the one shot to make good on a scarce opportunity; the number of family members vested in a student’s success.
But the motivation came primarily, I think, from understanding early on something fundamental: that the link between education and social and economic mobility wasn’t mere theory. It was a fact of life. In our poor, developing countries, we saw the correlation every day. The way up from scratching out a living was to get an education. And the more of it you had, the more flexible your options. (In an Internet age, add physical mobility to the flexibility factor, as the young are as likely to pursue their prospects in Taiwan as in Twinsburg.)
We have heard a good deal recently about growing income inequality and declining social mobility in this country. Research surveys show (and the Occupy Movement has dramatized) the gap separating the rich from the poor is widening and class divisions are solidifying. International data suggest it is more likely now that a child in Europe will transcend the social class of his or her parents than would his or her American peer.
Going by the huge increase in outlets for higher education, one can assume that most people do understand that higher education offers them the most obvious opportunity for mobility, to do better than their parents, as the saying goes. From online and for-profit universities to community colleges and a wide array of public and private schools, the sheer numbers have made access to college much easier. There are more Americans in enrolled in postsecondary education than ever before.
It was quite a revelation, then, to hear during the Republican primaries then-presidential candidate Rick Santorum call President Obama a snob for pushing higher education. Retrograde, I thought. The president was only asking “every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training,” wherever the best opportunity lies — in a community college or four-year university, vocational training or apprenticeship.
What is puzzling is that for all the expansion in higher education, the society is growing more, not less, unequal in the ability of citizens to transcend social and economic class. This is ironic in a country that has represented the dream of upward mobility for generations of citizens.
It appears, though, that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In the 1940s, the G.I. Bill and the recommendations by the Truman Commission on Higher Education vastly expanded access to postsecondary education so that more Americans could overcome the same disparities in opportunity and mobility that currently confront us. President Truman in 1947 called for the doubling of college attendance by 1960. And he called for something else that might induce a conniption in a Rick Santorum: “the extension of free public education through the first two years of college for all youth who can profit from such education.”
Fast forward to 2012, and middle-class and lower-income students (and their parents) are racking up lifetime debts to ensure they get the right mix of college credentials to move on up. At the same time, researchers are showing the transition upward is getting more difficult to accomplish — especially so when the anticipated return on investment does not materialize. The Chronicle of Higher Education in May published a report on the growth in graduates with professional and advanced degrees who are receiving food stamps and other forms of federal aid.
Old reports often are more than historical curiosities. The report the Truman panel presented nearly 65 years ago reads in part like commentary on current challenges: ‘‘There must be developed in this country the widespread realization that money expended for education is the wisest and soundest of investments in the national interest. The democratic community cannot tolerate a society based upon education for the well-to-do alone. If college opportunities are restricted to those in the higher income brackets, the way is open to the creation and perpetuation of a class society which has no place in the American way of life.”
We may already be tolerating such a society.
Ofobike is Beacon Journal chief editorial writer. She can be reached at 330-996-3513 or by email at lofobike@the beaconjournal.com.