College can’t level the playing field by itself (opinion)

Two myths are pervasive. First, if college weren’t so expensive, everyone could get a good education and have a good life. Second, if selective colleges enrolled more students from low-income backgrounds, they could solve our inequality problems.

Well-intentioned concerns over financial barriers to higher education and the inadequate resources available to colleges enrolling students from less privileged backgrounds too often lead to unrealistic ideas about how colleges and universities can change the world. Changing the world in which educational institutions operate is a prerequisite for making them true engines of meaningful social change.

Going to college—and particularly earning at least a bachelor’s degree—is in fact the best way for most individuals to increase their chances for a secure economic future and an array of satisfying career options. Calls for the government to make college “free” and for elite institutions to enroll more low-income students are rooted in this reality.

But by the time young people reach college age, our society has already distributed opportunities so unequally that it is impossible for colleges to close more than a fraction of the gulf. Rather than focusing only on how colleges can provide more opportunities for students who have faced hardships in their youth, we should be thinking of college as one critical step along a that begins at (or even before) birth.

Some children grow up in comfortable houses in safe neighborhoods and attend well-resourced early-childhood centers. Their parents spend a lot of time and money showering them with opportunities, exposing them to a wide range of learning experiences and providing them with educational toys, lessons and activities. High-income families spend more than three times as much on out-of-school educational activities as low-income families.

On the other hand, too many children grow up moving frequently between run-down dwellings in crime-ridden neighborhoods. They are lucky if adults can provide them with three meals a day. They have limited access to health care and must fend for themselves from a young age. Their stress levels are often off the charts.

Some children go to well-resourced elementary and secondary schools designed to prepare them for selective colleges. Others go to schools whose primary goal is keeping children physically safe.

And we expect colleges to level the playing field for all these children?

The biggest loss for college opportunity with the demise of the Build Back Better Act is not free community college. It is the provisions for expanded child tax credits, investments in childcare and universal preschool. Investing in children is the only way to develop young people who are prepared to reap the full benefits of a college education.

Yes, colleges with ample resources should do more to find the small share of young people who are overcoming the disadvantages of their backgrounds and are ready to take advantage of the best available educational opportunities. Yes, states should ensure that community colleges and other institutions that do and will continue to educate most people seeking mobility have more resources to support those aspirations and that the colleges use those resources effectively. But these efforts by themselves will never be enough to compensate for the damage done to children deprived of opportunities earlier in their lives.

And after students finish college, they face another punishing set of structures exacerbating inequality. Racial and gender discrimination in the labor market have proved to be intractable problems. Median earnings for young Black bachelor’s degree holders working full-time are 13 percent (about $9,000) less than the median for similar white adults. Median earnings for young women with bachelor’s degrees are 18 percent (about $12,000) less than the median for similar men. A combination of factors contributes to these differences, but the inequality is obvious.

Not having a college degree or having attended a less prestigious institution would matter less in a different labor market. Better worker protections, a higher minimum wage, stronger unions, more on-the-job training for entry-level workers: many policy changes could reduce the inequality in earnings among adults coming to the labor market with different characteristics, skills and experiences. Less unequal circumstances for working adults would in turn contribute to more equal starting points for their children.

None of these problems should let colleges or the governments supporting them off the hook. The more we can do to improve college access and success for both young people and older adults seeking to improve their lives, the stronger our society will be. We must diminish the financial, logistical and academic barriers facing students.

But we should not let the importance of investments in higher education obscure the core problems. Investing in children should be at the top of the priority list for advocates for college opportunities. Improving neighborhoods, schools and access to health care—and putting money into parents’ pockets—can transform lives. Reducing labor market inequalities will allow more children to grow up in secure households. Focusing on structural reforms that will erode some of the systemic inequalities people face at all stages of their lives can create an environment for colleges and universities to provide the best possible opportunities for all who aspire to higher education.

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