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Studies have shown that people who go on to higher education, go on to earn higher salaries and increase their own mobility upward, economically and socially. But, the bold question here is whether the U.S education system can provide those without a privileged background with the knowledge and opportunity they need to access the best higher education has to offer?

A top education is viewed as the key to socio-economic mobility, and a college degree has helped so many achieve the American dream. However, as a failing education system ‘dumbs down’ Americans and students fight for fewer college places with increased fees, accommodation and living expenses, the best education is once again only being afforded to the elite.

According to, about 22% of eighth graders scored below the basic level on the 2013 NAEP reading test, and only about 36% were at, or above grade level.

According to Pew Research, the 2015 results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), revealed that the US came 38th in math and 24th in science, out of 71 countries.

U.S. Education System Lagging Behind
Experts say the problem lies with the K-12 education system, which often fails to prepare students for college education and a healthy future. Parents from the middle-upper classes can combat the inadequacies provided by the American education system by providing their children with after-school tutors, advanced reading materials or send them to private schools. Advantages poorer students and their families cannot afford.

Even if poorer students make it through the many obstacles to college education, there are still further hurdles to overcome. According to Brookings, a college degree can be worth much less if you are brought up poor, because the student with the same degree from a more privileged background will have better access to resources that will help propel them to a better standing.

Results show that college graduates from families with an “income below 185% of the federal poverty level earn 91% more than high school graduates over their career”. While college graduates from families with “incomes above 185% of the FPL earned 162% more over their careers than those with a high school diploma”.

In the United Kingdom, the education system is structured slightly differently but still suffers many of the same issues the American system is now facing. According to The Guardian newspaper, education reform has failed to improve social mobility. It is widely believed that in Britain today social mobility is in decline, as it is in the United States. The newspaper states that “more individuals are now experiencing social descent and fewer social ascent simply because the numbers ‘at risk’ of the former have increased”. Young people entering the labor market face far less favorable mobility prospects than their parents did at the same age.

In conclusion, it does still take a top education to enable success today, but it is being afforded to fewer young people from less privileged backgrounds.

In America, CollegeNET has developed a new data-driven ranking of higher education quality – the Social Mobility Index (SMI) – to help raise education standards. The SMI “measures the extent to which a college or university educates more economically disadvantaged students at lower tuition, so they can graduate and obtain good paying jobs”, and will hopefully go some way to help improve education standards across the United States.

Senator Bernie Sanders once said “the reality is that the middle class today in this country is in desperate shape and the gap between the very very wealthy and everyone else is going to grow wider”. Experts say it is fundamentally important to ensure we encourage social mobility through the power of education to close the gap between the top and bottom one percent. Without it, American society will become even more unequal still with the less privileged having an even smaller chance of achieving success and climbing the ladder.

It will take bold actions by politicians, educators and activists to ensure that access to a top education is available to all backgrounds to enable social mobility in the United States.

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