Education has long been embraced as one of the best ways to combat inequality. When the Washington Post endorsed Barack Obama for president in 2008, they praised his sense that “the most important single counter to inequality … is improved education.”
Yet, this faith in the power of education has begun to falter. Hillary Clinton’s recent economic address included only passing mention of school reform and college readiness. Instead, her plan to tame inequality calls for more direct interventions in the economy, like raising the minimum wage and increasing worker training.
Behind this shift lies mounting evidence that improving our education system won’t do much to fix inequality. Diplomas may help people get better jobs, but they rarely vault college grads into the top 1 percent. There just isn’t enough room. Roughly one in three adults in the US has a college degree, while the top 1 percent is a much more exclusive club.
And if you’re not in that club, you’re stuck on the wrong side of the inequality divide — however many degrees you have.
Are you saying education isn’t valuable?
Absolutely not. Education is vital to the future of our kids and the success of our economy — even if its inequality-fighting effects have been oversold.
Let’s say there was a magic switch that could instantly improve our struggling schools and vastly expand the number of college graduates. A change like that would, indeed, help countless children, giving them new skills, richer experiences, and deeper forms of knowledge.
It would also strengthen our economy. Well-educated workers tend to be better at problem-solving and more productive at work. So the better the education system, the greater the odds of strong economic growth.
And to top it off, education can help improve social mobility. Today’s poor kids have just a 1 in 3 chance of making it into the middle class, and an even more distant 1 in 10 shot at cracking the top 20 percent. A more equitable school system would help improve those odds, giving low-income kids a viable path to economic success.
These are all good reasons to keep fighting for better schools. But a growing body of research suggests that even such far-reaching changes wouldn’t make much of a difference against inequality.
Why can’t education fix inequality?
The hidden assumption behind the idea that we can counter inequality by improving schools and getting more kids through college is that college grads are on the winning end of inequality, and non-college grads on the losing side.
But modern inequality isn’t driven by the gap between college-educated workers and high school grads. All the action is at the top of the income ladder, where the extremely rich have pulled away from everyone else.
Since 1979, wages for the top 1 percent in the United States have grown nine times faster than wages for the bottom 90 percent. That’s not a tale of the well-educated doing better than the less-well-educated. It’s about the super-rich outearning everyone else — including college graduates, who haven’t gotten a raise in over a decade.
So even if we did improve our schools — and even if those improvements really led to faster economic growth — there’s little reason to think the gains would be widely shared. They would likely be absorbed by the top 1 percent, as has been happening for decades now.
To test this theory, a team of researchers from the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution put together a simulation, where they estimated how different things would be if millions of high-school grads had made it through college. They found no meaningful change in overall inequality.
So what can we do to fight inequality?
Essentially, there are two ways to combat inequality. Either you change the economy so that workers take home a larger share of the economic gains, or you change the tax system so that the highest earners pay more and the middle class benefits more.
What doesn’t seem to work is a focus on improving education. Even if we could dramatically increase the number of college graduates, or greatly expand access to high-quality education, the United States would likely remain an extremely unequal place, a country where even college grads are being left behind.
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