Education and opportunity

by John Quiggin on May 22, 2014

I’ve got a piece up at the Chronicle of Education, with the title Campus Reflections (paywalled, but there’s a version at my blog) making the point that a higher education system is, in important respects, a mirror of the society that created it, and that it helps to recreate. If that’s true, it follows that the idea of education as a route to equality of opportunity, let alone equality of outcomes, is misconceived. This idea has always been popular among social democrats and even more so by advocates of ‘The Third Way’, who needed it to justify their abandonment of policies aimed at equalising outcomes.

Thinking about the point in this more general context, I’d want to qualify the ‘mirror’ claim a bit. There have been important instances where access to education has been substantially more egalitarian than access to resources in general, so that education did serve to promote equality of opportunity and perhaps also some equalisation of incomes (since it reduced the correlation between access to good jobs and ownership of wealth). The creation of universal public education systems in the 19th century was one example. These systems were far from being equal: they typically streamed students along class lines. But even giving working class kids the basics of literacy and numeracy was a big step forward, and there were opportunities for the bright and determined to do much better than that. The GI Bill in the US was another (if readers can point me to a good source of more detailed info on this I’d be grateful).

But, to the extent that education is a market commodity, it will be allocated on the basis of ability to pay. So, in the absence of a strong policy push in the opposite direction, unequal access to education for young people will reflect the unequal wealth and income of their parents. The US higher education system, like the health system, mirrors the outcomes of labor and capital markets pretty closely. It does a great job for the 1 per cent who go to the Ivy League Schools (and whose parents are mostly in or close to the top 1 per cent of the income distribution), does an adequate but expensive job for the next 20 per cent or so, and leaves everyone else to take their chances.