Rising College Attendance & Declining Social Mobility

One way Americans measure how well people are achieving the “American Dream” is to talk about how much better (or worse) children are doing than their parents. Social Mobility is the “relative economic status of grown-up “children” (ages 38-45) compared to their parent’s status when they were young.”[1]

Higher Education has always been a ticket out of poverty for many.[2]

The percentage of the American Population enrolled in a degree granting institution has increased by nearly 500% since 1947[3] (See infographic below)

While the percentage of Americans enrolled in higher education has increased, there remains a gap (and indeed it is growing) for higher education opportunities for people of lower incomes.[4]

As the demand for college attendance rises, the supply has and is likely to decrease for many. Eduardo Porter wrote about the negative impact this supply and demand issue has had on attendance and graduation:

“Most discussion about our dismal educational attainment implicitly assumes that if the demand for higher education materializes, public and nonprofit colleges and universities will step up to meet it. Recent research has shown, however, that this is not generally the case. There is pretty good evidence that shortfalls in the supply of higher education slots have constrained college completion.”[5]

When states have had a large college-age population, public spending per student declined and graduation rates suffered.

“Students in larger cohorts may be ‘crowded out’ of college if the capacity of the education system does not expand as rapidly as the student-age population or if the system only partially adjusts to a temporary bulge in enrollment,” Professors Card and Lemieux wrote.”[6]

Eduardo’s conclusion questions whether the public has the will to properly fund the public institutions to adequately meet the current and rising demand for higher education, considering the current political climate and budget problems of recent years.   It doesn’t take much to see that his concerns are well founded.

In the final analysis, the public has two choices: Meet the demand for higher education, or continue to see declining social mobility and an increasingly evasive American Dream for a growing number of people. Either way, there is a price to pay. The public must weigh whether they prefer their tax dollars be used to get more people a college education, or on social services and the criminal justice system.[7]




[2] Michael Greenstone, Adam Looney, Jeremy Patashnik, and Muxin Yu, The Hamilton Project, Thirteen Economic Facts about Social Mobility and the Role of Education (2013), page 7

[4] See supra note 2 at pages 9-15

[5] Porter, Eduardo. Why College Matters (2014)- Economix Blog at New York Times

[6] Id

[7] Education and Public Policy Justice Policy Institute(2007) – states with higher college enrollment have lower rates of violent crime.http://www.justicepolicy.org/images/upload/07-08_rep_educationandpublicsafety_ps-ac.pdf