Sybil Low by Sybil Low
A Closer Look at Higher Education's Role in Economic Mobility

Recently, The New York Times published a piece discussing the critical role of colleges and universities in driving individuals into the middle class. It prompts us to consider the purpose of higher education in light of recent affirmative action debates, demographic shifts, and a pandemic that has reshaped our education systems.

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Key Takeaways:

  • Despite the focus on the racial composition of elite institutions, most American students attend public two-year colleges and less selective four-year institutions. 
  • The pandemic and subsequent school closures have challenged the education system, leading to a decrease in enrollment and literacy levels, which necessitates effective recovery strategies.
  • Addressing the need for social mobility through higher education involves several layered issues and potential policy areas.

A 2019 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities exposed a stark reality: the funding for public colleges remains $6.6 billion lower than pre-recession levels in 2008, adjusted for inflation. The pandemic exacerbated the situation, with state appropriations dropping again in 2021 and 2022. According to Katharine Meyer of the Brookings Institution, maintaining current funding levels would help sustain staffing at public colleges and alleviate some of the cost burden placed on students and their families.

The Need for Clear Courses of Study

In a strong job market, students from lower-income backgrounds need assurance that their college investment will yield substantial returns. This confidence is particularly crucial given the high opportunity cost of foregoing immediate employment post-high school.

Josh Wyner, the founder and executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, advocates for colleges to offer clear study programs and effective advising. Citing the successful example of Imperial Valley College, Wyner emphasized the benefits of proactive advising in high school and early planning of degree programs.

Highest R.O.I Programs

Highlighting high R.O.I programs is another key strategy in making higher education a viable means of social mobility. A 2020 Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce report, “Buyer Beware,” revealed some surprising facts about earnings-to-debt ratios for various majors and institutions, further emphasizing the importance of this approach.


While not everyone may desire or need a college education, fostering an inclusive and accessible higher education system is crucial for our society. A sharper focus on these approaches can convince more potential students that higher education is worthwhile, fulfilling, and an effective gateway to economic stability. In the long term, this tendency could have a significant impact on the economic well-being of the country.

The Value of College: Weighing Up Alternatives to Higher Education

While higher education undoubtedly opens pathways to economic mobility for many, it’s essential to examine whether a college degree is indeed the best choice for everyone. As society evolves, so too should our perception of success and the routes to achieve it.

In the past few years, people’s view on education largely shifted. More and more, alternatives to the traditional four-year college degree are popping up and grabbing people’s attention. For example, vocational training has started to stand out as a practical option for students who are more interested in gaining hands-on skills specific to certain industries. Such programs can pave the way to well-paying jobs in areas like IT, healthcare, or advanced manufacturing, often without the daunting load of student loans to repay.

In the same vein, apprenticeship programs are gaining popularity, offering a unique blend of work and study. These programs let students earn while they learn, combining practical workplace training with theoretical classroom instruction.

Additionally, the rise of online learning platforms is creating a whole new universe of educational possibilities. These platforms offer everything from intensive coding bootcamps to in-depth digital marketing certifications, allowing students to pick and choose what they want to learn. The flexibility they provide means that students can learn at their own speed, aligning their education with their career aspirations at a pace that works for them.

Notably, entrepreneurship presents an exciting alternative for those with a knack for innovation and business. Many successful entrepreneurs have demonstrated that creativity, perseverance, and business acumen can sometimes outweigh the value of a formal education.

In a rapidly changing world, it’s essential to recognize that the traditional four-year college route isn’t the only path to success. A more inclusive view of education can empower individuals to make choices that best align with their goals, skills, and economic realities.

Read also:

Education is a right, not a privilege

Community Colleges Respond to Growing Demand for Online Learning

Key Tips to Successfully Transition from Post-Grad Break to Job Search

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