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'Parachutes and Ladders' to break down how uneven education system prevents American dream

Thursday, March 10, 2016

LAWRENCE — Education is often pointed to as the cornerstone of the American Dream. Yet, even though we tell children studying hard is the key to their success, it’s becoming increasingly evident that quality education is not equally available, and therefore, that the American Dream is not equally available to all. Convinced of the crucial role that education can still play in the nation’s economic mobility system, the University of Kansas will host a discussion of gaps in educational outcomes today, their implications for young adults’ prospects and how policy could restore education as a foundation for upward mobility.

Parachutes and Ladders: Education and Social Mobility in the U.S. will take place from 10 to 11:30 a.m. March 29 in the Big 12 Room of the Kansas Union. At the event, free and open to the public, researchers from the Center on Assets, Education and Inclusion in School of Social Welfare, colleagues from across campus, and national experts from the Pew Financial Security and Mobility Project and the University of Michigan will discuss evidence revealing that educational attainment depends more on family financial standing than educational aptitude. The forum will include presentations from experts but center on an inclusive roundtable discussion of policy approaches within different domains that, together, can redeem the American Dream.

“How does the reality fall short of our ideal of education, particularly higher education, as a ladder to equality and financial security?” said Melinda Lewis, associate professor of the practice in social welfare. “This question is especially urgent given the discussions swirling on college campuses in the last year around race, inequality and justice. What do we tell our kids? ‘Study and work hard and you can go to college.’ We’re finding more often that’s not the case.”

The conference, which will be streamed online, will take a challenging, provocative look at issues including higher education funding, relative immobility at both ends of the economic distribution, education as an equalizer, and class and economic disparities in the American education system.

Emily Rauscher, assistant professor of sociology at and faculty director of wealth transfers within AEDI, will share “The Ladder is Broken: The Promise and Stark Realities of the American Dream.” She will present evidence showing limitations and barriers to education, including research that shows college graduation rates are nearly identical for the highest-achieving low-income and the lowest-achieving high-income students. Taking an honest look at such disparities is essential to righting them, Lewis said. Another prime example is merit scholarships, which by definition should go to the most deserving student, but are disproportionately awarded to students from economically advantaged backgrounds, whose relative privilege equips them to compete favorably for these rewards.

Erin Currier of the Pew Financial Security and Mobility Project will present “Mobility in History: Better Off than Our Parents, But Only Absolutely.” Currier will present data challenging the conventional wisdom that future generations will be better off than previous ones economically, particularly relating to members of Generation X, who are often worse off in terms of assets than their parents, even though they may be paid more and have more education.

Fabian Pfeffer of the University of Michigan will discuss “Education and Mobility: Evidence and Limits.” Pfeffer, a recognized expert in the study of education and mobility, will discuss challenges of relative mobility within education. His remarks will underscore the "hard math" of relative mobility, which holds that if someone from a lower economic class is to move up, someone already in a higher class has to move down. Within the current education system, actions taken by privileged parents often prevent this mobility.

William Elliott III, associate professor of social welfare and director of the Center on Assets, Education and Inclusion, will present “Time to Build New Ladders with Closer Rungs? Policies to Facilitate Mobility.” Elliott will discuss specific, asset-based policies in how our country finances higher education and their potential to position education as a more potent force for economic mobility.

“In ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,’ Thomas Kuhn discusses how periods of normal science are interrupted by periods of revolutionary science, when current paradigms are no longer able to solve problems and societies clamor for a different vision,” Elliot said. “The U.S. financial aid model has been in a period of normal science for far too long. Individual children are paying the price, when their dreams are dashed by inequitable and inadequate college financing. And the foundation of our entire economic mobility policy is now.”

Elliott and Lewis co-authored “The Real College Debt Crisis: How Student Borrowing Threatens Financial Well-Being and Exposes the American Dream.” The book, released last summer, argues that student debt has reached a point in which revolution is necessary. Just as the Homestead Act in the 19th century and the G.I. Bill in the 20th century drastically changed who could succeed economically, the time has come for a similar change in the way higher education is funded, as it is now placing crushing debt on students, preventing them from becoming financially secure.

Parachutes and Ladders will conclude with a roundtable discussion among presenters and attendees. The conference is open to the public, and organizers are reaching out to schools, administrators, students, media and policy makers to take part in the conversation. Anyone interested in attending can register at https://aedi.ku.edu/parachutes-and-ladders The event will be live-streamed online, and the Center on Assets, Education and Inclusion will later post a series of videos from the event. The conference is co-sponsored by KU’s Institute for Policy and Social Research and Provost’s Office and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

“We need to confront what our education system is like for people who approach it from both advantaged and disadvantaged positions,” Lewis said. “Otherwise we will squander our opportunity to address the problems and make it equitable. We need to take an honest look at the underlying causes of the problems facing our education system and the limitations it places on economic mobility.”