In particular, it’s not happening for kids from lower-income families — kids who are disproportionately black or Hispanic. As of 2003, 80 percent of high school seniors from families in the top 20 percent of income enrolled in college the fall after graduation, while only 49 percent from families in the lowest 40 percent did so. That class divide translates directly into big disparities along ethnic lines. In 2006, 34 percent of white Americans aged 25- 29 held college degrees, compared to 19 percent of African Americans and only 10 percent of Hispanics.
The obvious reason for this education gap is that college is too expensive. After all, tuition costs have galloped far ahead of inflation, while many in the working class have seen their incomes stagnate or slip. But, in truth, the source of the problem lies much deeper: in the way parents raise their children.
A lack of money is the most common explanation for why lower-income children don’t go to college, and it’s the impetus for proposals, like those put forward by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, to increase tuition subsidies. But James Heckman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist from the University of Chicago, is convinced that additional subsidies would do little good. Heckman recognizes the strong correlation between family income and college matriculation, but he argues that income is just a proxy for more fundamental differences in family and environmental conditions — like parental education — that ultimately show up in test scores and scholastic achievement. In a 2001 study co-authored with Stephen Cameron from Columbia University, Heckman tested the attendance gap between blacks, whites, and Hispanics, controlling for academic ability using scores from the Armed Forces Qualification Test (afqt), and found that family income did not really matter when it came to getting kids into college. In fact, “at the same afqt level Blacks and Hispanics enter college at rates that are substantially higher than the White rate,” regardless of how much money their families made. The problem was that relatively few blacks and Hispanics reached a sufficiently high afqt level in the first place. In other words, the main reason fewer African Americans and Hispanics go to college isn’t that they can’t afford it. It’s that they lack the skills to do the work.
Not all scholars share Heckman’s skepticism about additional tuition assistance. David Ellwood and Thomas Kane of Harvard are two prominent proponents of improving access to college financing. Yet even they concede that “the single most powerful determinant of college-going remains high school achievement.”
Of course, even if lack of money isn’t preventing many well-qualified students from matriculating, it could still explain why less-advantaged kids aren’t gaining the abilities that going to college requires. For one thing, lower-income kids tend to go to under-funded schools that offer a poorer quality education. However, going back to the Civil Rights Act-sponsored Coleman report of 1966 (named for its principal investigator, sociologist James S. Coleman), study after study has shown that most of the variation in scholastic achievement occurs within schools, not among them. The abilities students bring with them to class matter more than any differences in school programs.
On the other hand, those same studies show that students’ abilities correlate strongly with their families’ socioeconomic status. So another possibility is that wealthier parents invest more financially in their children, spending money on tutors, extracurricular travel, and so forth, thus helping them get better grades. Alternatively, more money could mean less stressed-out parents — parents with more time and energy to help with homework, go to school events, and just generally be around.
But University of Chicago sociologist Susan E. Mayer has found otherwise. In her book What Money Can’t Buy, she examined the connection between parental income and child outcomes, including school performance. She concluded that, “once children’s basic material needs are met, characteristics of their parents become more important to how they turn out than anything additional money can buy.” The condition is emphasized for a reason. Mayer is not suggesting that existing government programs for the poor ought to be cut. Rather, she is saying that those programs have been relatively successful at meeting kids’ basic needs. Consequently, having the government or parents spend more money on children is unlikely to have much impact on how they do in school and beyond.