Something is holding back lower-income Americans from going to college. It’s not that there aren’t major incentives for them to go. In fact, the college wage premium — the difference between the average wages of college grads and those of high school grads — has climbed to around 85 percent, up from less than 50 percent in 1980. At the same time, according to Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, the relative supply of college grads grew an average of only 2 percent per year between 1980 and 2005 — down sharply from an average growth rate of 3.8 percent per year between 1960 and 1980. As you would expect, slowing supply growth (in graduates) has led to higher prices (in wages). But the next step should be a supply boom in response to the higher wages — and it’s not happening.
In particular, it’s not happening for kids from lower-income families — kids who are disproportionately black or Hispanic. As of 2003, 80 percent of high school seniors from families in the top 20 percent of income enrolled in college the fall after graduation, while only 49 percent from families in the lowest 40 percent did so. That class divide translates directly into big disparities along ethnic lines. In 2006, 34 percent of white Americans aged 25- 29 held college degrees, compared to 19 percent of African Americans and only 10 percent of Hispanics.
The obvious reason for this education gap is that college is too expensive. After all, tuition costs have galloped far ahead of inflation, while many in the working class have seen their incomes stagnate or slip. But, in truth, the source of the problem lies much deeper: in the way parents raise their children.
A lack of money is the most common explanation for why lower-income children don’t go to college, and it’s the impetus for proposals, like those put forward by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, to increase tuition subsidies. But James Heckman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist from the University of Chicago, is convinced that additional subsidies would do little good. Heckman recognizes the strong correlation between family income and college matriculation, but he argues that income is just a proxy for more fundamental differences in family and environmental conditions — like parental education — that ultimately show up in test scores and scholastic achievement. In a 2001 study co-authored with Stephen Cameron from Columbia University, Heckman tested the attendance gap between blacks, whites, and Hispanics, controlling for academic ability using scores from the Armed Forces Qualification Test (afqt), and found that family income did not really matter when it came to getting kids into college. In fact, “at the same afqt level Blacks and Hispanics enter college at rates that are substantially higher than the White rate,” regardless of how much money their families made. The problem was that relatively few blacks and Hispanics reached a sufficiently high afqt level in the first place. In other words, the main reason fewer African Americans and Hispanics go to college isn’t that they can’t afford it. It’s that they lack the skills to do the work.
Not all scholars share Heckman’s skepticism about additional tuition assistance. David Ellwood and Thomas Kane of Harvard are two prominent proponents of improving access to college financing. Yet even they concede that “the single most powerful determinant of college-going remains high school achievement.”
Of course, even if lack of money isn’t preventing many well-qualified students from matriculating, it could still explain why less-advantaged kids aren’t gaining the abilities that going to college requires. For one thing, lower-income kids tend to go to under-funded schools that offer a poorer quality education. However, going back to the Civil Rights Act-sponsored Coleman report of 1966 (named for its principal investigator, sociologist James S. Coleman), study after study has shown that most of the variation in scholastic achievement occurs within schools, not among them. The abilities students bring with them to class matter more than any differences in school programs.
On the other hand, those same studies show that students’ abilities correlate strongly with their families’ socioeconomic status. So another possibility is that wealthier parents invest more financially in their children, spending money on tutors, extracurricular travel, and so forth, thus helping them get better grades. Alternatively, more money could mean less stressed-out parents — parents with more time and energy to help with homework, go to school events, and just generally be around.
But University of Chicago sociologist Susan E. Mayer has found otherwise. In her book What Money Can’t Buy, she examined the connection between parental income and child outcomes, including school performance. She concluded that, “once children’s basic material needs are met, characteristics of their parents become more important to how they turn out than anything additional money can buy.” The condition is emphasized for a reason. Mayer is not suggesting that existing government programs for the poor ought to be cut. Rather, she is saying that those programs have been relatively successful at meeting kids’ basic needs. Consequently, having the government or parents spend more money on children is unlikely to have much impact on how they do in school and beyond.
Money isn’t the issue here, since talking to your kids is free.
If more money isn’t the answer, what does have an impact? In a word: culture. Everything we know about high performance in all fields of endeavor tells us that, while natural talent is a plus, there is no substitute for long hours of preparation and hard work. That commonsense notion has been confirmed by the findings of the so-called “Expert Performance Movement,” led by Florida State University psychologist Anders Ericsson. Ericsson and fellow researchers have spent years studying top performers in a whole host of different domains, and they’ve found a common denominator: practice. Chess grandmasters, concert pianists, and other superstars are distinguished from less-accomplished performers by two main things: starting their chosen fields earlier in life, and logging more hours per day of training over the course of many years.
Apply these lessons to doing well in school, and it becomes clear that the class divide in academic achievement is fundamentally a cultural divide. To put it in a nutshell, the upper-middle-class kid grows up in an environment that constantly pushes him to develop the cognitive and motivational skills needed to be a good student; the low-income kid’s environment, on the other hand, pushes in the opposite direction.
Child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley have tested the effect of class on the differences in how parents interact with their young children. After observing several dozen families with toddlers over the course of a couple of years, they were able to document dramatic differences in the intensity and nature of the verbal stimulation the kids were getting: Professional parents directed an average of 487 “utterances” per hour toward their children, as compared to 301 for workingclass parents and only 176 for welfare parents. The quality of those utterances was also very different: Among professional parents, the ratio of encouraging to discouraging utterances was six to one; for working-class parents, the ratio slipped to two to one; and welfare parents made two discouraging utterances for every encouraging one. The consequences were predictable: By the time the children in the study were around three years old, the ones from professional families had average vocabularies of 1,116 words; the working-class ones averaged 749; the welfare kids, 525.
Money isn’t the issue here, since talking to your kids is free. What does matter is the parents’ inclination to nurture their child’s development and the resulting verbal practice that the child gets. Kids from well-off homes get more chances to interact verbally, and that practice is an essential ingredient of developing a large vocabulary.
Once kids reach school age, the growing influence of peer groups reinforces the early patterns established at home. The relative clout of parents and peers in shaping personality and values is a subject of hot debate, but here they generally work in concert. College-educated professional parents make sure their kids are in college-bound peer groups, while working-class and underclass kids tend to gravitate toward others like them. Consequently, children on either side of the class divide grow up with very different attitudes about the importance of school achievement — which leads to different expectations about future life plans and different self-conceptions in relation to larger society.
The “acting white” stigma reported among groups of black students was recently tested by Harvard economist Roland Fryer. Fryer used data on high school friendship groups to determine that, while white kids were more popular the higher their GPA, blacks and Hispanics whose average exceeded a certain level were increasingly unpopular.
These findings are controversial, to be sure. Other quantitative studies, using different methods, have reached different conclusions. But the phenomenon identified by Fryer has been corroborated by a large number of ethnographic studies — not only of blacks and Hispanics, but also of other less-advantaged groups, such as the Buraku outcastes in Japan, the Maori in New Zealand, the British working class, and Italian immigrants in 1950s Boston. It’s a bedrock fact of social psychology: Humans have a powerful and universal tendency to form self-policing social groups. With groups that are marginal to begin with, the tendency to enforce group solidarity can express itself through stigmatizing anything that looks like mainstream success.
The idea that class-based cultural differences contribute to academic underachievement is cause for consternation across the ideological spectrum. Let’s start with me and my fellow libertarians. We insist on the central importance of individual responsibility for the healthy functioning of a free society. Yet, by the time people become legally responsible adults, circumstances not of their own choosing — namely, how they were raised and whom they grew up with — may have prevented them from ever developing the capacities they need to thrive and flourish. Which raises the possibility that government intervention to improve those circumstances could actually expand the scope of individual autonomy.
For example, preschool enrichment programs — along the lines of Head Start, but more intensive and beginning with even younger kids — offer some promise in counteracting the negative influences of a disadvantaged upbringing. So do housing programs that encourage relocation from areas of concentrated poverty. Meanwhile, additional wage subsidies for low-skilled workers might help to shrink the underclass and promote the gradual assimilation of middle-class norms.
Progressives, for their part, should recognize that libertarians have their own good ideas for boosting human capital and fostering assimilation. Among them are: greater competition in the school system, cessation of the drug war that so needlessly fosters criminality, and elimination of occupational licensing restrictions that block opportunities for entrepreneurship among the less credentialed.
Furthermore, progressives need to understand that the rise in skill-based inequality is not some populist morality play of capitalism run amok. On the contrary, in many ways it can be seen as a capitalist success story. For a generation now, our economy has been creating more opportunities for the productive use of highly developed cognitive skills than there are people able to take advantage of them. That is what the run-up in the college wage premium is telling us. Economic development has raced ahead of cultural development; as a result, culture is now acting as a brake on upward mobility. So, instead of railing against the economic system, we need to do a better job of helping people to adapt to it and rise to its challenges. The rules of the game aren’t the problem — we just need more skillful players.