Accelerating Education, Slowing Mobility
Economic mobility is little more than a myth for most people who grow up in families with low incomes. A child born in poverty in the early 1980s had single-digit chances of having a high income as an adult. If we want to simply raise incomes from one generation to the next, we’re failing. Nearly all Americans born in 1940 had incomes higher than their parents’ by the time they reached the same age, but today, only half of adults born in 1980 make more than their parents did.
Racial inequality exacerbates that overall decline in mobility. More than half of Black children born in the bottom income quintile stay there as adults, compared to about a third of white children. Perhaps more surprisingly, Black middle-class boys are twice as likely as white middle-class boys to move down the income distribution by the time they’re adults. This reality isn’t the American Dream.
Many policymakers answer this challenge with proposals to expand access to higher education for students from families with low incomes. With all its limitations, higher education remains one of the few levers of mobility, including for students of color. But its impact varies depending on the type of institution, the quality of professional network and degree a student accesses, and the student’s likelihood of completing a degree. Unfortunately, a bipartisan higher education proposal in Congress may be more likely to trap than empower these students.
For nearly 50 years, Pell Grants have helped low-income students access college and stand a chance at climbing the economic ladder. Pell’s role in giving students a shot at upward mobility can be improved substantially. However, a current proposal — with inadequate safeguards —would expand Pell to cover training programs that can take as little as eight weeks. This “short-term Pell” proposal may seem attractive insofar as it can encourage more postsecondary attainment, but the lack of both safeguards for students and accountability for institutions has raised serious concerns from higher education and civil rights experts. It might waste Pell dollars — and, far worse, waste time and resources from hardworking students with very low incomes, including a disproportionate number of black and brown students.
There’s little evidence that short job training courses lead to increased earnings. Recent analysis into financial aid from last year finds that over $3 billion in Pell Grants were spent on shorter-term programs from institutions where the majority of students earn less than $28,000 a year. The low-wage jobs that short courses train for are unlikely to take someone and their family from one income bracket to another — or help them save enough to weather a crisis or move to a neighborhood with better schools, key factors in economic mobility.
When combined and stacked in thoughtful ways, and when strong partnerships exist between training organizations and employers, short courses in sectors like manufacturing, IT, and healthcare can lead to better-quality jobs and higher pay. The proposal before Congress fails to require these guided career pathways. This proposed expansion to Pell does not hold institutions accountable for their program outcomes, and it will likely feed more for-profit providers, which have a long history of exploiting low-income students.
But this proposal also plays into a tired narrative that has failed us for decades: Though proponents may not intend it, this proposal advances the idea that while high-income students continue to attend college, low-income students should be content with low-quality, expedient trainings that prepare them only for low-wage jobs.
Policy changes should expand Pell dollar amounts available to students, and they should strengthen accountability within the system — collecting data on student outcomes, making links between training, education, and high-wage jobs, and supporting higher education in line with the dream of economic mobility. Higher education shouldn’t be a risky proposition, especially for students who can least afford it.
Lily Roberts is the Director of Economic Mobility at the Center for American Progress. Laura Tatum is the Director of Jobs and Education at the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.