Degrees can improve status, study shows

By Alissa Groeninger

A newly released study from the Brookings Institution challenges the long-held American belief that those who work hard can move up the economic ladder.

The authors of the study, Julia Isaacs, Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins, said the belief that the poor can pull themselves out of poverty has encouraged Americans to tolerate growing inequality among economic classes.

Data from the study indicates that earning a college degree is the best way to move from the bottom economic classes to the top economic classes. However, the data also shows that people with parents at the bottom of the economic ladder are having a more difficult time then ever earning a college degree.

According to data from recent years, 74 percent of people with a college degree had an income greater than their parents, while 63 percent of people without a college degree had an income greater than their parents.

Adult children of parents in the bottom one-fifth economic bracket have a 19 percent chance of making it to the top one-fifth when they earn a college degree. Twenty-three percent of kids who have parents in the top one-fifth remain in the top one-fifth even when they do not earn a degree.

John Dimit, Urbana School Board member, said innovative programs that provide scholarships can help students from lower income families attain higher education degrees.

“The thing we can do is give them the best education and the best counseling possible,” said Mark Netter, an Urbana school board member.

In Champaign the education gap between socio-economic levels is still significant at the high school level, despite a slow closing of the gap at the lower grade levels during the past four years, said Dave Tomlinson, a Champaign school board member.

In order to close the gap, Tomlinson said the Champaign School District works closely with Parkland College and the University of Illinois to find out what colleges look for in high school graduates. This allows the district to develop a curriculum that will prepare students to become successful at the next level.

Dimit and Tomlinson disagreed with placing all emphasis on attaining a four-year degree.

“Not everyone is best suited for higher education because some students will fare better in community colleges or trade schools,” Dimit said.

“You still have to have an awful lot of academic knowledge to be a brick mason or a carpenter,” he added.

Tomlinson said the Champaign School Board develops strategies to best prepare students for whatever path meets their talents.

The best approach, Tomlinson said, is a pragmatic one: “Are they going to be ready to be productive employees whether they go to college or not?”