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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 that higher education has to offer or not. Indeed, a top education is viewed as the key to economic and social 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.

Education in the United States

According to studentfirst.org, about 22 percent of eighth-graders scored below the basic level on the 2013 NAEP reading test, and only about 36 percent were at or above grade level. Likewise, according to Pew Research, the 2015 results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), revealed that the U.S. came 38th in math and 24th in science—out of 71 countries.  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 and upper classes can combat the inadequacies supplied by the American education system by providing their children with after-school tutors and advanced reading materials or sending them to private schools. It goes without saying that these are advantages which financially-challenged students and their families cannot afford.

an infographic with data in relation to higher education and the fact that the U.S. Education System is lagging behind

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 unwealthy 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. In fact, results show that college graduates from families with an “income below 185 percent of the federal poverty level earn 91 percent more than high school graduates over their career”. On the other hand, college graduates from families with “incomes above 185 percent of the FPL earned 162 percent more over their careers than those with a high school diploma”.

Higher Education In Relation To Economic and Social Mobility

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 economic and 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”.

Veritably, 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”. The index will hopefully help improve education standards across the United States.

Availability of Quality Education For All

Senator Bernie Sanders once said that “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 that we encourage economic and social mobility through the power of education—including higher education —to close the gap between the top and bottom 1 percent. Without economic and social mobility, American society will become even more unequal still—with the less privileged having an even smaller chance of achieving success and climbing the ladder.

Undoubtedly, 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 economic and social mobility in the United States.

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