Acton Institute Powerblog

Higher Education and Upward Mobility

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Today at Public Discourse, I explore the dubious connection between educational attainment and upward income mobility, arguing instead that a focus on cultivating social capital would be far more effective than the conventional wisdom: “Stay out of trouble and stay in school.” Staying out of trouble is still a good idea, but staying in school — when it comes to higher education — is becoming less and less effective on its own at predicting economic improvement.

In addition, while I believe education to be desirable for itself, I do not think that one can turn a blind eye to the great cost, decreased quality, and decreased utility of higher education today. I write,

As higher education continues to be over-promoted, its price inflated, and its quality watered down, the question of utility now becomes far more pressing. The words of John Henry Newman no longer ring true that the university, through a well-rounded, liberal education, gives “a gift which serves [its possessor] in public, and supports him in retirement, without which good fortune is but vulgar, and with which failure and disappointment have a charm.” The vast majority of colleges and universities no longer offer such an education or have somehow managed to make the endeavor and cost of obtaining one a charmless disappointment.

While human labor is an ascetic good, being stuck [underemployed] in a job with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, no apparent hope of paying it off, and no other clear options for upward mobility is and ought to be demoralizing.

While Newman’s point ought not to be too easily discarded (he is right that a liberal education is a good worth pursuing for itself), that does not allow us to ignore the troubling practicalities of our present system.

Nevertheless, recent research into the correlation between religious practice, community organizations, and stable, two-parent families gives reason to hope for those who seek a better life for themselves and their children:

Neither increased educational attainment nor increased state investment in higher education can be assigned credit for increased quality of life. The quality and utility of the former is dubious, and the latter does not even have a strong correlation in its favor. Vital faith, families, and communities, however, not only have a positive correlation to commend them but, arguably, act even more than a liberal education as “a gift … without which good fortune is but vulgar, and with which failure and disappointment have a charm.”

Read the full article at Public Discourse here.

Dylan Pahman Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.


  • Just addressing the failure of higher education to play a more prominent role in upward income mobility, there are two ends at which this could be approached. From the school end, colleges are being businessfied because they are being used to turn a profit. This is especially true for state funded schools as the funding has been dropping through the floor. Thus students become customers and happiness replaces education and preparation as the commodity to be purchased. This businessfication of college moves colleges to lower academic standards for entry and hurts academic performance after enrollment. The “liberal” education that was once offered is now becoming a tech school education where people are taught how to work a system but not critically reflect on how the system should be changed or even replaced.

    On the real world end part, both society and the job market are suffering changes. It seems that most of the good paying jobs are either in business or technology. Our society is being dehumanized by an ever increasing pervasiveness of both business and technology. And we are told to accept the advancing intrusions of both without question.

    Yes, religious communities, community organizations, and two parent families are important but other factors are important too. For example, the more there are good paying jobs across all sectors of the economy, the more two parent families can be supported in a stable environment. In addition, knowing the limits of the market place and where it should not advance is just as important in promoting a better life. The same goes for technology. Here, critical thinking is required to make these judgments. Unfortunately, we are weeding out the subjects that help us acquire that kind of thinking.

  • Dylan,
    Actually, private colleges depend on endowments to be able to survive. So they don’t necessarily have to turn a profit from garnering enough tuition though the bottom line is still important. A problem for private colleges is the constant glut of universities that presently exist which is unresponsive to the number of trad and nontrad students who are able to pay.

    And, I was addressing state schools in particular and should have noted that. In my state, we have seen drastic cuts in funding each year for many years which results in increased student loans through banks. Here, should we check the campaign funding connections between the banks making such loans and the politicians, from BOTH major parties, who continually cut funding? In addition, many new buildings have their own funding. The drain they have on university funding doesn’t come into play until they are finished and ready for use. Then the funding they require is maintenance and keeping things state of the art.

    But the real businessfication is in how the students are regard as customers, as objects of revenue. At the last university I taught, the school had received many students thanks to lower standards and because of a cut in state funding, had terminated many of its remedial services. Guess who is caught in the middle of all of that? At some schools, the saying, “the customer is always right,” is how some grade disputes are settled.

    Thank you for your response and the links. I could not access the first one because I am a hesitant subscriber of anything online. I see you gave more-less a market explanation for the increase in tuitions. I was wondering if the sharp increase in administrative costs vs the lowering of academic costs came into play in your analysis. I didn’t see it there but the wife will tell you that I can be quite oblivious to finding stuff.