Higher Education

Are colleges helping Americans move up?

Colleges have long offered a pathway to success for just about anyone. But new research shows that, with the country growing ever more economically divided, colleges are not doing enough to help students from poor families achieve the American dream.

Patrick Hughes has a quintessentially American story. The son of Jamaican immigrants, he was raised in a lower-middle-class section of Queens, New York. His parents, particularly his mother, urged him to go to college.

“Education is the path to break the cycle that my parents were fighting so hard to break,” Hughes said.

If you want to move up in America, go to college. That’s the advice people get. But new academic research suggests that chances for students from poor families in America to move up through higher education are shrinking. Elite colleges still don’t admit many students from poor backgrounds, and public universities are under increasing financial pressure to enroll wealthier students who can afford full tuition. For poor students, college isn’t the mobility-maker it once was.

That trend is happening at a time when social mobility in America is stagnating. The chances an American child will earn more than his or her parents has been declining: Children born in the 1940s had a 90 percent chance of surpassing their parents; kids born in 1980 had only a 50 percent chance of doing better. It’s now more difficult to break out of the class you’re born into. Children of well-to-do families are likely to stay that way, and children of poor families are likely to stay poor.

This APM Reports documentary explains what’s going on. We visit a college coming to terms with its own role in perpetuating class divides and another that has long been a “mobility maker” – but is struggling to stay that way. Get the full story here and find out if college worked for Hughes.

APM reports will be releasing three other documentaries throughout the month. They explore the resurgence of apprenticeship programs under the Trump administration, and why more than half of American students aren’t proficient readers. You can get all of the documentaries by subscribing to the Educate Podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

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