Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is an expression that has a profound resonance for Americans. We like to think of this country as a “land of opportunity,” where anyone can “get ahead” by dint of hard work.

The historical record does not always confirm the truth of those sentiments. Cooperation and communal effort, as much as individual achievement, have just as often been the engines of upward mobility. Prejudice and injustice have also destroyed the hopes of many. Still, whatever the methods employed or obstacles encountered, we as a people believe that economic and social advancement should depend on individual merit rather than inherited advantage or status.

According to many observers, that ideal is now threatened. “Americans are clearly mistaken if they believe they live in the world’s most mobile society,” the Economist wrote recently (January 1). Surprisingly, it is easier to move up the economic ladder in many European countries, where broad access to higher education and an extensive social safety net mitigate the advantages of wealth. In contrast, the editors of the Economist note, a growing concentration of wealth, and related narrowing of opportunity, has occurred in the United States in the last thirty years. Not since the 1920s has the bulk of the country’s economic assets been concentrated in so relatively few hands, while the gap between rich and poor is wider now than at any time since the legendary inequalities of the Gilded Age. As a consequence, it is increasingly difficult for average Americans to climb the socioeconomic ladder.

One of the principal reasons for the present stratification of American society is the strong correlation between well-paying jobs and an individual’s level of education. In today’s information economy, education is the surest path to opportunity. That’s why the skyrocketing cost of higher education is undermining economic mobility for millions. Adjusting for inflation, the average tuition at public and private colleges rose 38 percent from 1992-93 to 2002-03. Middle-class students are now likely to graduate from college with tens of thousands of dollars in loans to repay. More troubling, many poor students who have the grades to attend college do not: in 2003, the House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce reported that 48 percent of qualified students do not attend a four-year college because of the prohibitive cost. At this rate, by 2010 more than 2 million students will have missed out on the education needed to lift themselves up by their bootstraps.

Making higher education more accessible to low-income students is a moral and economic necessity. Government has an important role to play. To his credit, President George W. Bush has recently proposed increasing the amount a student can receive in Pell Grants-the main government support for low-income students. Unfortunately, he also wants to cut programs designed to expand educational opportunity. In his latest budget proposal, the president wants to eliminate programs such as Upward Bound, which provides instruction for low-income students applying to college, and the Thurgood Marshall Legal Educational Opportunity program, which supports low-income or minority students interested in attending law school.

Some private universities have taken steps to make their institutions accessible to students from poor families. Yale recently announced that families making $45,000 a year or less will not have to contribute to their child’s education. (Harvard initiated a similar effort a year earlier, and saw a dramatic increase in applications from low-income students.) Yet financial-aid programs like these are rare. More troubling, state schools, which have historically provided a superb education at a reasonable cost, are becoming more expensive. Since 1981, public four-year college fees have increased more than 200 percent.

One of the most successful government educational programs was the GI Bill, which initially provided veterans of World War II with the financial means to attend college. Most of those who took advantage of the GI Bill after World War II were the first in their families to go to college, and that investment in higher education is credited with lifting millions of Americans into the middle class.

Many young Americans enlist in the military today to help pay for college, but more needs to be done for students who do not choose to serve in the armed forces. A good first step was President Bill Clinton’s HOPE tax credit-which allowed families to deduct up to $1,500 of tuition costs. Other innovative ways for alleviating the financial burden of college need to be found.

President Bush likes to speak of an “ownership society” in which individuals can own “a piece of their own health-care plan...or a piece of their retirement.” Managing your own health care or retirement, however, requires a level of education to which many American do not have access. Today, empowering individuals means giving them educational opportunities. If we do not find a way to make a college education more widely available, the trend toward economic inequality will only increase, rendering hollow our belief in America as a land of opportunity and justice for all. n

March 15, 2005

Published in the 2005-03-25 issue: View Contents
Also by this author
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.