Class of COVID-19 may pay career price

Credit: Wilfredo Lee / AP Photo

Credit: Wilfredo Lee / AP Photo

Greatest impact will be felt by low-income students without resources to recover

If college is the most well-traveled and reliable pathway to the middle class, why aren’t more students on it?

Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, tackled the question Thursday in a virtual forum, “Closing the Widening Gaps,” by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.

The question is relevant in Georgia, where there’s been a concerted push to expand vo-tech options for high school students under the contention not all teens need to go to college.

But should they go? And how are COVID-19 and the recession impacting their ability to go?

Somewhere between 60% and 70% of the dramatic earnings inequality that began in the mid-'80s in the United States is accounted for by differences in access to and completion of college programs valued in the labor market, said Carnevale. (Typically, STEM degrees.)

Since about 1983, Carnevale said, college has become “the most well-traveled pathway and, eventually, the only reliable pathway, I think, to the middle class.”

Yet, every year, about 500,000 high school students graduate in the top half of their class but don’t get a certificate or degree within eight years after graduation, according to Carnevale.

“If these kids did go to college and persisted, they would graduate at the same rate as kids with similar test scores, which means about 75% of them would be perfectly capable of graduating from one of the top 500 colleges in America,” said Carnevale.

In 10 years, 30% of the nation’s college-going population will come from households with two parents with bachelor’s degrees and enough money in the bank to finance a degree from a fancy four-year college, said Carnevale. Georgia will lag as only 14% of high school graduates by 2029 will have two parents with bachelor’s degrees.

“We have a higher education system now that tracks the children of most affluent families into well-financed, prestigious and endowed institutions, and the children of the rest, if they go to college at all, into non-selective institutions that were too poor and didn’t spend enough money to ensure that most students graduate with decent economic prospects,” said Carnevale, who explores these themes in a new book he co-authored, “The Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America.”

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Higher education leaders claim that class and racial inequality started long before college admission offices get involved. But that’s a bit of a dodge, said Carnevale.

“The numbers are damning. A child from a low-income family who has top test scores when they’re in grade school has only a 31% chance of graduating from college and getting a good job by age 25,” said Carnevale. “While a child with low test scores who comes from a family in the top income quartile has a 71% chance of making it though school, making it through a four-year college and getting a good job.”

A speaker who followed Carnevale said, “There is no right way to do college.” In an interview after the forum, Carnevale said that may be true in theory, but there are missteps that undermine low-income students, including working more than 15 hours a week during college or taking a gap year. Both substantially decrease their likelihood of graduating, he said.

The problem for low-income students is that stumbles and detours inflict more harm because they have fewer family and financial safety nets. “All our data, starting from kindergarten, show that when less advantaged people stumble, they don’t get up. But, being from an affluent family, you get a lot of chances; you can screw up and recover.”

The COVID-19 recession poses more risks to low-income students, many of whom are putting off college because they can’t find a job to pay for it, said Carnevale, citing U.S. census data. Last month, a census survey showed students in lower-income households were almost twice as likely to have halted all plans to enroll in college as were their peers in households earning $100,000 or more.

“This is a catastrophe for one younger generation of students, and they will be scarred by this in their careers,” said Carnevale. Yes, jobs will eventually come back, but not until the double whammy of this recession and school closures, on top of the Great Recession, stalls a lot of young people’s educational progress, he said.

When the jobs return, they will come back in the usual way: The workers with the most education, the last fired in the recession, will be the first hired in the recovery, said Carnevale.

Carnevale examined jobs in Georgia in 2019 that paid at least $35,000 a year. He found:

  • 95,000 jobs for people who had less than a high school education.
  • 500,000 jobs for high school graduates.
  • 1,215,000 jobs for people with bachelor’s and graduate degrees.

Despite the continued call in Georgia for more vocational pathways, Carnevale said the bachelor’s degree remains the golden ticket, especially when students earn degrees in high-demand fields like engineering.

That ticket may become out of reach for low-income and minority students, who may lose income during the COVID recession and see deep cuts to the public colleges they attend. "Legislators have always used higher education funding as a cash reserve to balance their state budgets, and they will do that again,” said Carnevale.

“And the public still believes that education after high school is something we all do on our own, in spite of the fact that there is not much hope these days of a good job that will eventually, by mid-career, pay $55,000 a year or more if you don’t get at least some college,” said Carnevale.

"We need to treat our education programs and our social programs and the economy itself as all one system by connecting the dots between these separate institutions and policy silos,” said Carnevale. “We need to recognize that college graduation actually begins in preschool. This is an all one system effort if we are going to change things.”