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.

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