Is Economic Mobility Destined to be a Zero Sum Game?

Harvard Gate Photo by Flickr User Patricia Drury

Harvard Gate Photo by Flickr User Patricia Drury


In the New York Times, Richard V. Reeves is smacking sacred cows, positing that there is no way for everyone to win in our society. Writing on “The Glass-Floor Problem,” Reeves looks at mobility and “sticky floors,” noting:

It is a stubborn mathematical fact that the top fifth of the income distribution can accommodate only 20 percent of the population. If we want more poor kids climbing the ladder of relative mobility, we need more rich kids sliding down the chutes.

Even the most liberal parents are unlikely to be comfortable with the idea that their own children should fall down the scale in the name of making room for a smarter kid from a poorer home. They invest large amounts of economic, social and cultural capital to keep their own children high up the social scale. As they should: there is nothing wrong with parents doing the best by their children.

The problem comes if institutional frameworks in, say, the higher education system or the labor market are distorted in favor of the powerful — a process the sociologist Charles Tilly labeled “opportunity hoarding.” The less talented children of the affluent are able to defy social gravity and remain at the top of the ladder, reducing the number of places open to those from less fortunate backgrounds.

Many New York Times commenters rejected this framework entirely – the idea that someone else has to lose for another to win was too unsettling to consider. And yet, when we compete in an economy of “elites” and there are limited spots available for the most desired schools, jobs, and neighborhoods, that is exactly what has to happen. However, what interested me more than Reeves’s initial argument was a large piece of his solution: access to more elite colleges.

College matters a lot for social mobility. For someone from a poor background, getting a four-year degree virtually guarantees upward mobility. Elite colleges act as gateways to the best career paths. Getting more poor kids into colleges, and getting the brightest into the best colleges, ought to be a national mission.

In essence, Reeves wants to solve a problem by reinforcing the foundation of the problem.

I must admit, my response to Reeves’s piece is informed by my background. I grew up poor, and I committed the cardinal sin of being young, poor and intelligent: I didn’t finish college. Generally, it is assumed that one’s only chance to make something of yourself in life is to go to a four year college and obtain a degree. It was why I was tracked into programs like Upward Bound, and why my slightly better than average PSAT and SAT scores prompted a wave of college mail.

It would take far too long to parse the whys of choices made in poverty – maybe one day I’ll write a longer piece about my own experiences, but today I want to focus on what an elite college actually does for your life.

First, let’s make a distinction: Reeves notes that getting a four year degree “virtually guarantees” upward mobility, which is not the case. Jennifer Silva, author of Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty penned a fascinating op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education explaining exactly how a degree isn’t the golden ticket it once was:

[Working class 20- and 30-somethings] believe wholeheartedly that the only way out of dead-end jobs is a college degree. But over and over again, I heard stories of bewilderment and betrayal. They lack the skills and knowledge they need to navigate an increasingly complex, costly, and competitive higher-education system. Whether confused about majors, stymied by bureaucracy, crippled by loan debt, or left feeling like they don’t belong, working-class men and women have come to see their relationship with college as a broken social contract. As they see it, they bought into the promise of higher education but got nothing but disappointment and loss in return.

It isn’t that the degree itself is worthless – it’s just that the cost of higher education coupled with the difficulty of obtaining the most in demand degrees can sometimes lead to a large debt load and only a marginally better job. (And that’s not even taking into consideration for profit colleges or life factors that make college a 5, 6, or even 10 year long endeavor.) As more and more students of all backgrounds headed to college in greater numbers, a degree became less of a marker of educational attainment and more of a baseline filter. And for many who did things the “right” way, they still find themselves on the outskirts of this shifting economy. As Danielle Belton writes:

All my closest friends (save one) are unemployed, some recently and others going on years without a job. And some are single, others divorced, some have kids, others are child-free, everyone has a degree or two, some have written books, some have worked for some large firms and in high-powered places, but all of us are unemployed, living the unemployed life of filing for unemployment assistance, applying for jobs, waiting for phone calls that never come, going through interviews where you, your friends and everyone else you know is up for the same gig and then none of you get it because it’s about who you know and even though you know everybody you also know no one at the place you just applied.

So it isn’t about any old degree. The key – if there is one at all – is the experience you receive at an elite institution, which is far, far deeper than any piece of parchment.

When I went to Stanford (for my Knight Fellowship), I was immersed in the culture of an elite, world-class institution for an academic year. And, frankly, I spent the first few weeks in a state of disorientation. It was almost like being in one time stream and peeking at your own alternate futures. I remember crossing the quad, starting my class shopping, and wondering what my life would have been like if I had actually applied to schools in my senior year of high school. Would this have been me? What would have happened if I filled out that application Harvard sent me all those years ago, instead of enshrining it as an artifact from the land of better lives? It took me a few weeks to shake off all those feelings and actually get to observing the environment.

It took another week before I realized me and Toto weren’t in Harlem any more.

Stanford boasts a $17 billion dollar endowment and is a “$4.4 billion dollar enterprise.” Stanford is tight with Silicon Valley. Stanford is like getting a golden ticket to the Chocolate Factory, but there’s no Willy Wonka acting as morality police. The entire world is yours, and that attitude is everywhere.

Working on your portfolio? Let’s have Tony Hsieh from Zappos come in and talk to you. Some free time for lunch? Do you want a conversation with the former head of national security or listen to this Nobel Peace prize winning author? (Most of these are catered, naturally.) What are you doing this summer? Did you apply for one of the many grant programs to fund your adventures to China/Nigeria/underserved areas in the US? Did you see this new $80,000 a year fellowship? Do you have a business idea? Did you apply to the D. School? Are you in our start up incubator? Did you sign up for the venture capital office hours?

Don’t get me wrong, it is truly amazing to be in a place with that much opportunity and plenty. Your life is transformed. But these kind of things are rare and beautiful, once a year occurrences at many state schools, not daily happenings the way they were at Stanford. And even the best community colleges don’t have that kind of access. At Stanford, the access is there – everyone wants to speak to you, work with you, help you. An elite college is truly a different experience.

Unfortunately, elite colleges only have a set number of spots, which is where we return to that zero-sum thing. If one person gets in, it means another person has lost out. Or many other persons.

In 2013, 38,828 people applied hoping to be accepted to Stanford’s freshman class – 2,209 were admitted. Harvard has similar numbers, revealing 35,023 hopefuls and 2,029 new students. Even if the Ivies took on a radical social justice stance and only admitted promising kids from impoverished backgrounds, we’re talking about eight elite schools, admitting roughly 2,000 students a piece. This is not a solution.

There are more than elite colleges in the world. Plenty of people go on to graduate from good colleges, solid colleges, and ok colleges, and find a way to make a living.

Still, I find myself wondering why we don’t reimagine society in a way where college degrees aren’t the only pathway to success for low-income students. And I am not just talking about trades – Silicon Valley is rife with drop outs who made good. Some are elite college dropouts, sure, but others are people who were drawn into coding, web design, and sales – professions where the focus is on production rather than pedigree.

So why are we so invested in college as the singular pathway to success in our society? And, if we are de-investing from the scarcity model, why can’t we imagine a different structure?

  • littleeva

    I don’t think people my age (baby boomer generation) realize how hard it is today for young people. When I finished college in 1981, I had a three figure debt and I paid it off before I was thirty, and managed to have my own apartment. And we thought things were awful in the economy THEN.

    The price of college made sense, it was actually possible for someone to work their way through college; I even knew some folks, older than me, who went to CUNY when it was still free.

    I mean if someone goes to school to be a teacher and ends up with a 5 or 6 figure debt, there’s no way they will ever pay that off, they’ll be in debt forever and I think something is wrong with that picture.

  • athenia45

    I love your paragraph where you describe of the questions and opportunities you might find at an elite college. It feels overwhelming especially when society won’t actually assume you can/will do those things (cuz you aren’t a white dude).

  • Jenn

    This is an excellent piece, and really stirs up my intense, bitter hatred for my own university experience. An experience I have not completed, eight years after I started my undergraduate degree. Even at a state school, there are two experiences: the haves and all the nice things they get to do, the networking they can accomplish, while the have-nots go to their part time jobs after class. I was smart enough to snag a scholarship, but not smart enough to get out of more debt than I can possibly pay with what I currently make.

    My brilliant friends, most from more affluent backgrounds than me, went to those elite colleges. And some of them benefitted from the networking. But all of them have failed to land permanent lucrative positions in the private sector, and all of them fund their international jaunts and artistic escapades with their parents’ money or what they can squeeze out of their university and academic tracks.

    Last month, I sat down with a dozen of my friends, all of whom graduated the same year I did. Some went to places like NYU or Loyola or Rice. All were unemployed, save for me. But I realize that my employment is bittersweet. I have a job because I have no choice but to have a job. They have other choices, and perhaps those choices have an expiration date, but they were still able to make them.

    Elite college or no, what sets your experiences as a young adult seems to be your parents means. I’m in my late-20s, and there’s still an immense gap between my expectations and experiences and those of my graduating class.

    So I totally agree: elite colleges guarantee nothing, at least when it comes to the private sector. It’s just another expensive feather in one’s cap for a rich upbringing.

  • Knoxvilla

    This piece just blows my mind. It’s what we knew all along about Ivy vs. State and networking networking networking, but to have it stated this way and see the implications in real time… it’s quite the mind-*#$K…

  • Baakus

    You’re right. There’s no real good reason why something as scarce as an Ivy League education should be the determinative factor in one’s success. The education quality is most likely equal between an elite private school and a good public school. You’re not paying for the classes; you’re paying for the network. And there’s no reason why schools have to be the only network hubs.

    But let’s not kid ourselves. Power and resources ARE zero sum. That’s why even liberal Whites are so reluctant to truly fight racism and other prejudices if it means that the privileges that they’ve taken for granted will be taken away.