Downward mobility haunts US education


Downward mobility haunts US education

By Sean Coughlan BBC News education correspondent

University in the autumn
Fall on campus: The US has slipped to 14th in university graduation rates


An integral part of the American Dream is under threat – as “downward mobility” seems to be threatening the education system in the United States.

The idea of going to college – and the expectation that the next generation will be better educated and more prosperous than its predecessor – has been hardwired into the ambitions of the middle classes in the United States.

But there are deep-seated worries about whether this upward mobility is going into reverse.

Andreas Schleicher, special adviser on education at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), says the US is now the only major economy in the world where the younger generation is not going to be better educated than the older.

“It’s something of great significance because much of today’s economic power of the United States rests on a very high degree of adult skills – and that is now at risk,” says Mr Schleicher.

“These skills are the engine of the US economy and the engine is stuttering,” says Mr Schleicher, one of the world’s most influential experts on international education comparisons.

Lack of opportunity

Ohio steelworks
A steelworker in Ohio in 1950 drives away his new Dodge, paid for with a $320 monthly wage. The steelworks have shut and the town is now in the “rust belt”

The annual OECD education statistics show that only about one in five young adults in the US reaches a higher level of education than their parents – among the lowest rates of upward mobility in the developed world.

For a country whose self-image is based on optimism and opportunity, the US is now a country where someone with poorly-educated parents is less likely to reach university than in almost any other industrial country.

It’s the opposite of a Hollywood ending.

And about one in five young adults in the US are now defined in educational terms as “downwardly mobile” – such as children who have graduate parents but who don’t reach university level themselves.

When the global story of higher education is so much about rapid expansion and the race to increase graduates, it’s almost counter-intuitive to find a powerhouse such as the United States on the brink of going backwards.

It’s easy to overlook the dominance of US higher education in the post-war era – or how closely this was linked to its role as an economic, scientific and military superpower.

The US had the first great mass participation university system. The GI Bill, which provided subsidies for a generation of World War II veterans, supported three times as many people as are currently in the entire UK university sector.

An American born in the 1950s was about twice as likely to become a graduate than in the rest of the industrialised world.

As the cars ran off the production lines in Detroit, the graduates were leaving the universities to become part of an expanding middle class.


Barack Obama
President Obama has promised that by 2020 the US will regain its position as the global leader in the proportion of young people becoming graduates

But the US university system is no longer the only skyscraper on the block. It’s been overtaken by rivals in Asia and Europe.

Today’s young Americans have a below-average chance of becoming a graduate, compared with other industrialised economies.

The US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in a speech a few weeks ago, asked how the US had in “the space of a generation” tumbled from first place to 14th in graduation rates.

So what’s gone wrong?

The spiralling cost of higher education in the United States is often cited as a barrier – and the collective student debt has exceeded a trillion dollars.

But Andreas Schleicher argues that a deeper problem is rooted in the inequalities of the school system.

He says that the level of social segregation and the excessive link between home background and success in school is “cutting off the supply” between secondary school and university.

The meritocratic, migrant energy in US culture is no longer operating in the school system.

“If you lose the confidence in the idea that effort and investment in education can change life chances, it’s a really serious issue,” says Mr Schleicher.

Middleclass squeeze

A US Senate committee examined this sense of imperilled optimism, in a hearing called Helping More Young People Achieve the American Dream.

The economist Miles Corak was among the expert witnesses – and he says the US education system reflects a wider picture of the “hollowing out” of the middle class.

Continue reading the main story


“Start Quote


These skills are the engine of the US economy and the engine is stuttering”

End Quote Andreas Schleicher OECD

“What you’re seeing is the inequality of the labour market being echoed in education.”

Prof Corak describes a polarising jobs market, with the very rich and very poor diverging – and a collapse in jobs in the middle ground, such as clerical or manufacturing jobs.

For such families, sending their children to college had once been a “defining metaphor for the country”.

But it seems that the education system is no longer holding the door open to the brightest and the best, regardless of background.

The Philadelphia-based Pew research group compared the outcomes of young people in 10 western countries, in a project called Does America Promote Mobility as Well as Other Countries?

It found the US had the strongest link between family wealth and educational success – and the lowest mobility. Advantage and disadvantage were being further amplified in education.

Research manager Diana Elliott says in the US “income has a pervasive hold on mobility”.


Another study by Pew, against the backdrop of recession, examined the phenomenon of downward mobility and found that a third of adults classified as middle class would slip out of that status during their adult life.
Harvard and Yale football While the US has slipped down in graduate numbers, individual universities remain at the top of international university league tables
It reflected a modern sense of insecurity, where families could no longer assume their children would be as prosperous. In fact, about a quarter of children born into the middle class were expected to slip downwards.

None of this matches the image of the US as a place for fresh starts and self-made millionaires. Modern American history almost assumes an upward incline.

But evidence of this downward drift has been gathering in recent years. A study by the University of California, Berkeley, showed that school leavers in California in 1970 were more likely to stay on to higher education than their counterparts in 2000.

In terms of international education, that’s like finding out that athletes were running faster 40 years ago.

Such current difficulties should not be mistaken for any kind of end-of-empire zeitgeist, says Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.

Instead he says it’s a more practical question of money. The rising cost of higher education is a deterrent. And there is a wider question of finance for higher education at state level.

He also says there is another “dirty little secret” of US higher education – that too many people who enrol at university fail to graduate – which pushes down the graduation rate in international comparisons.

Bouncing back

Andreas Schleicher also says there are reasons for optimism. Almost more than any other country, he says the US has the financial resources, the capacity and the flexibility to change course quickly and to catch up.

There are already plans to recover lost ground. President Barack Obama has been re-elected with a promise that the US will regain its global first place in graduation rates by 2020.

And as part of this drive, the American Association of Community Colleges, in a project called Reclaiming the American Dream, has an ambitious plan to create five million more college places.

But it’s an aspiration against a gloomy background.

“The American dream has stalled,” the association’s report says, describing a society where typical family incomes having been falling for more than a decade.

“A child born poor in the United States today is more likely to remain poor than at any time in our history. Many other nations now outperform us in educational attainment and economic mobility, and the American middle class shrinks before our eyes.”

It’s as if It’s A Wonderful Life had been remade – without the happy ending.

Thanks for your comments. Here is a small sample of the large numbers of emails submitted.

For the US in the 1950s now read China in the 2010s. There are something like 15 times the number of professional engineers and scientists soon to graduate in China compared to the US – and something like 15 times the number of professional engineers and scientists in the US soon to graduate compared to the UK.

Martin, Southampton, UK

Problems in the public school system are leading to this. Teaching resources sharply declined within the last decade, qualitatively and quantitatively. Most of the teachers could not catch up with new age and digital revolution. Not only educationally, but also emotionally they are way behind the technolocigal requirements: simply can’t keep up.

Zeki, Azmir, Turkey

This is far more a symptom of the previous generation being the best educated in the world than of any real collapse in the education system. Upward trends can only continue for a certain period of time, education in the USA has reached that peak and will now plateau. Couple that with more and more young people delaying going to college both in the USA and UK based on costs and you will see this pattern replicated throughout the developing world in the next decades. People will still be educated to high levels, that education will just likely be spread out over a longer period, which might not be a bad thing.

Ieuan, Port Talbot

This phenomenon is occurring all around the Western world and is not unique to the US. Where once education was considered a privilege, now it is considered not merely a right, but something to be taken for granted and even resented as an imposition. Western educators approach their school populations as supplicants, begging for their participation and engagement, instead of pointing out the realities and consequences of ignorance. The result of these approaches speak for themselves. Asian nations that slavishly emulate these Western trends will suffer similar educational outcomes.

Pam, Sydney, Australia

At the top of the pyramid resources and quality are second to none, in the middle quality much depends on location; the tax base of the school district, at the bottom the system loses kids early. For most (not the brightest), the cost college education is a hill to climb and an undergrad degree alone is insufficient for a middle class career to pay it off. The economics of college vs. non-college is no longer clear.

Kevin, Allentown, US

I am a secondary school Math teacher. I have a B.S. in Chemical Engineering and a M.S. in Education. I would go on to earn a Ph.D., but it is too expensive. One reason my students don’t want to go to college is they don’t see any value in it. They read and watch stories of people making millions without ever going to college: athletes, musicians, stars, models, innovators, self-trained programmers. And then there are skilled technicians who don’t need college (plumbers, security specialists, hair stylists, etc.). We also hear in the news about companies leaving US soil because they cannot find people to work in their factories – high paying jobs that don’t require a college degree. Apparently our young people don’t want to go to college, but at the same time they don’t want to work in a factory environment either. Another issue with value is that students are well aware of the fact that teachers and other college educated people don’t make that much money. A starting teacher in our district (with a family of four) makes approximately $28,000 a year (poverty level). Students look at us and ask ‘Why should I go to school to earn a degree to be poor? We are already poor, so what benefit is all that extra work?” I am at the point where I agree with them. Salaries of the middle class have not changed much in 20 years, while the rich are now measured by billions, not millions. There is staggering inequality and students are not blind.

Adam, Knoxville, US

Higher education starts at birth. Access to words, ideas, lessons in self-control need to be prioritized in the first five years of life–not in the four years of high school. American policy and funding has consistently focused more on prisons than on preschools. In addition, the education system focuses more on perceived deficits (learning DISabilities, etc.) than on perceived potential. Until the beautiful rigor of hard work is valued amongst elementary schools, American post-secondary educational attainment will continue to lag behind.

Susan, Woolwich, Maine, US

It’s worse than it looks. The US measures education by “years of schooling”, but most schools have lowered their standards to allow children to remain at school long after they’ve stopped learning. The *majority* of “college students” are just endlessly repeating work that is appropriate to much younger children.

John, New York, US

I have long felt that the decline of our educational system is just another symptom of the war on the middle class being waged by the wealthy here in the US. If the wealthy paid their share of taxes (and if the spending of those taxes wasn’t so heavily influenced by corporate lobbyists), the money would be available to keep education affordable. It astounds me that people who should know better think that the best way to increase their own wealth is to make everyone else poorer. While stealing from the poor (through political and corporate influence) may work in the short-term to increase the wealth of the already-wealthy, the long-term results will be the decline of our entire nation.

Michael, Washington DC, US

Many people in the USA are entering 1yr or shorter programs gain a specific skill such as, medical admin., after which they extend their education over time. This limits the amount of student loans needed to gain a modern marketable skill. I went the four year path and what a mistake. I have $38k in student loans and trying to live on $9hr with rent etc. Also as education funding has dried up schools are now more holding cells than educational facilities in many parts of the USA.

DK, Maine, US

US education can be outstanding at the graduate level, but is almost dismissive of anybody who does not want to go to university. Teenagers who do not see university as the best option for them get shoehorned into classes they are not interested in, end up going to college for a few courses, and drop out. A more balanced approach that would make industrial and craft apprenticeships an acceptable path would improve graduation rates in secondary and tertiary education.

John, Columbus, US

It’s an economic issue. Potential students need to see value at the end of the process. If you can go to school and see a probable increase in salary at the end, as a result of the work, then you’ll consider it. If you’re going to go to school and see both years of debt repayment and limited chances for jobs at the end, you’re unlikely to do it. The price of education in most Anglo countries but particularly the US is such that most potential students are priced out of the market.

EB, Juba, Sudan

The greater issue is a deficient high school education system in the US. Students taking entry level classes are failing for lack of basic skills including spelling, grammar, and arithmetic, but also logical reasoning. Challenging these students earlier on will prepare them for college education and make them capable of taking on other jobs if they do not want to get a degree.

Alastair, Athens, Ohio, US

It’s just supply and demand. Manufacturers in this global economy moved to lower labor costs. Even clerical jobs like call centers and even jobs like reading x-rays or architects or lawyers have been off-shored. Anything that doesn’t require physical contact with the customer can be off-shored. In my area recently there was an opening for an elementary school teacher. Three hundred people applied for the job. Many with masters degrees. I know a man, college graduate, let go in his 50’s who after two years found a job at a large chain store. He said everyone working there were college graduates who could not find work in their field. Working for little more than minimum wage with no health care and large student loans. After a generation of shipping jobs overseas, with the encouragement of the government, what else do you expect? You can’t have a country that doesn’t make anything and is based only on the service industry.

RL, Michigan, US

The real problem here in the U.S. is that our pre-college education system is failing us. Students often can’t get into college because they are insufficiently prepared. Teachers at pre-college levels are only concerned about their pay. Read the post from the math teacher in Knoxville. They always sing the same song, We Need More Pay. Yet they refuse to let their pay (and advancement) be influenced by the best possible measure of their job performance — how well their students are learning, based on standardized testing. They’re not doing a good job, and they want more money for doing so. And when they don’t get what they want, the go on strike and the students sit at home instead of going to school. They are holding our country’s students for ransom and should be ashamed of themselves.

Phil, Minneapolis, US

I recently started a college fund for my grandson. I am fortunate enough to be able to put aside a little money each month to help defray the expected costs of a college education for him in 18-20 years time. When I opened the account, I was advised I would need to put aside somewhere close to $7,000 a year to have enough money to cover his education expected to cost $287,000. Simply put, if you are not already wealthy, you simply cannot put enough money away to ‘prepare’. I’m still putting away some each month…while I can !

Steve, Detroit, US

Social mobility in US is certainly slowed down tremendously even in the 10 years I have been in US. Growing up in India, every generation still does better than the previous. I come from a Middle Class family and even my grandmother had a Bachelors degree so my generation almost has to get a Masters. I always dreamed of coming to US for my Masters Degree (and I did from California in Electrical Engineering). But, once I got here, I along with other foreign students stared to realize how pathetic US education system is upto grade 12 (which basically is all your formative years to one day make it to college). Simple example, in California each Grad student (US born and foreign) is supposed to take a test to show their proficiency level in English and consistently US born students fail this test at even Graduation level. It is a simple English test !! On the other hand, I along with another student were the only 2 who scored the highest marks and both of us were forei!


I recently graduated with a BS in Civil Engineering. The four year path is not worth the cost. I went to a state university and came out with 80K in loans with monthly payments equivalent to a mortgage. After a year and a half I’ve found a job in my field and the only reason I got the job was due to connections. Many of my classmates are still without engineering jobs. It is not enough to simply have the education, you need an open door which is increasingly more difficult to come by due to lack of jobs. Without these jobs there is an increasing sentiment that the loans aren’t worth it. Even if you get a job in the field you go for, the starting pay for that job has likely not increased since the last generation (barring inflation) while the cost to get the education has quadrupled. This has created a self perpetuating cycle where increased loans make us less likely to try something new. Without this innovation our jobs, pay and economy stagnates which forces our children to live with higher loans and the cycle continues. Sadly this cycle will continue until someone changes the game with higher education. I think this change can and should come from the within the economy where corporations pay for students to go to school in exchange for years of service (similar to the military). This will decrease college loans and force schools to teach what the students need to learn (if a school doesn’t teach the right material, the company sends the student somewhere else). Unfortunately it seems likely that the government will change the game through regulation on the schools which may or may not be effective. We will see. One thing is for sure, if this does not change soon, we will see Americans leaving for “greener grass” internationally.

Luke, Wakefield, MA, US

As an American, living overseas, I’m astounded by the fantastic education received by many European children. It makes it clear to me just how far behind we are. America is bombarded with news reports of economic woe, but has failed to see the true consequences of the ‘tax-rise vs. spending-cut’ debate. We’ve focused so much energy on ensuring that our tax rates don’t rise, that we’ve failed to notice the damage our stinginess is causing. We used to lead the world in science and innovation, but unless we do something to fix the current situation, we’ll never see those days again. Also, it should be obvious to everybody that if we can’t compete in education, then it’s likely that we soon won’t be able to compete in the global market either. Then all the reports on economic doom will become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Chris, Bitburg, Germany

As a Brit having lived in the US since 1979 I have observed a major dumbing down of intelligence in young people. The television is at the level of a five year old. And yet the phrase “We are the best country in the world” echoes on and on. And this by people who have never left their state let alone the country. But football is their God and just like the Romans the “Bread and games” go on except now it’s beer and hotdogs. The rich buy their way into college and the poor end up with debt and no jobs at the end of it. Every Empire has its time and for America the game is over.

Alexandra, Fort Worth, Texas, US

I have two graduate degrees, but I am discouraging my children from going to college. My own income as a professional has never been much above poverty level, and the debt my sons would incur going to college would outweigh any educational benefits. We’re looking at alternatives to the traditional 4 year college: apprenticeships, community college, technical school, or a year or two of travel overseas, with the understanding that they can “take courses” in areas of interest throughout their lives. It’s hard to be a productive, contributing citizen when you’re worried about paying your rent every month.

Suzanne, Hingham, MA, US

Only in America can you borrow a few hundred thousand dollars to finance a house at a mere 3% interest but have to pay 7.9% interest on student loans.

Janine, Oklahoma City,

I grew up in the northeast of the US in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. I went to excellent suburban public schools with nearly 100% graduation rates and the majority of my classmates went on to university. We rode a wave of middle class achievement where our education came first. Our parents were not overly involved in the day-to-day of school, but every 10 weeks when report cards came out we had to explain what went wrong and how we planned to fix it. If we did well, my mother would take us out to dinner to celebrate making the honor roll. Looking back I realize that I would have had to work harder at screwing up than at success, but it was also ingrained in me by my family and my peers that screwing up was not an option. I look at American teenagers today and wonder if the healthy competition for good grades that I had with my friends still exists. I live in the south now and the local school system has about a 30 – 40% high school drop out rate. I feel the teachers, the school board and the administrators are doing the best they can. I believe no child comes into the world wanting to anger or disappoint their parents or their teachers – so I’m not going to blame the kids. I feel that the case for education has not been made among the parents who can’t or won’t take their children’s education seriously or the community who bitches about the money it takes to run the schools. If an individual school is failing we can fire the superintendent, the principal and the bad teachers. We can even kick the bad kids out of school or move them to other schools. The third side of the triangle is made up of the parents and the community and we can’t fire or re-assign them. I want to shake the parents who buy their daughters bigger breasts in high school, who drag their kids through Walmart at 11pm on a night before school day, or who put more energy screaming at a scoreboard than a report card. As far as the community goes, the US should also focus on the significant regional differences in education and opportunity. As a country we need to re-energize our commitment to the ideal of public education – which is nearly impossible in the red states. One question that hasn’t been asked: Who is benefiting from a lower-skilled labor force in the US? Perhaps it is the “job creators” who would rather “pay peanuts and get monkeys,” as the old saying goes.

Allison, Brunswick, GA, US

I dropped out of college after 2 years because I had learned nothing. I had to take a dozen remedial classes to obtain a degree. My classmates were taking Cake Baking for their business degrees! At the time colleges were focusing on “Well Rounded Students,” in other words, “We want you to have fun and pay us big money.” The focus now is on rapid learning, that is where the money is. Finish a class in one month and earn a degree in a year. What did they think would happen? I look around at college educated friends who are earning minimum wage because they made it through a degree without actually learning. They memorized a lesson, took a test, and then forgot everything. I dropped out of traditional school and enrolled in focused certificate programs. Now I have the business skills, the social skills, a good job, and no college debts. A few colleges truly focus on education and producing exceptional graduates, but let’s face it, the schools have to pay their bills. Quantity over quality. Or rather cash over quality.

Karen, St Louis, US

As a graduate from an overpriced private University in the NYC-metro area, it was obvious for me around 2006 that there is a huge gap in the lower classes and lower middle classes as apposed to the upper middle and upper classes. The vast majority of students who can afford to be admitted into the top colleges (often private) have attended private preparatory high schools which have costs nearing that of university. For those who didn’t attend private preparatory high school like myself, they usually attended public schools in wealthy neighborhoods that can afford quality education. Basically, if you want a high pay job, you’ll need a top-notch education in the US, you’ll have to pay top-dollar. Without evening the playing field by improving public education or reigning in costs at the top private schools, nothing will change.

Glenn, New York, US


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