The Kansas-City Star (Missouri)
By: Sarah Larson
December 20, 2010
As humans, we are creatures of habit. We are always moving but not always paying attention to the direction we are headed.
How do I know? Every once in a while, I get in my car, and rather than driving to my destination, I find myself headed down the same road I take every day to work. It is as if I have put on my own habitual autopilot rather than stopping to think, "Do I turn left or right to get to where I want to go?"
I believe as a society, we also turn on autopilot rather than think about what is happening in our world and what we need to do to get where we want to be. Centuries ago, the historian/philosopher Plutarch warned, "An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics."
In the United States, however, the imbalance between the rich and the poor is growing rapidly and most of us are doing little to stop it.
If Plutarch's argument is true, it is in our nation's and our own best interest to pay attention and change the structures that create this imbalance. What structures am I referring to? An education system that fails for students in the lowest income brackets, a health care system that sends millions of people into debt, predatory lending that pulls people who can't get fair loans into a cycle of debt, and an economic system that makes it difficult for poor people to build assets such as home purchases and retirement savings.
We must continue to focus on and support positive and dramatic changes to the education system. By almost every statistical measure, the divide between the haves and the have-nots in higher education -- among students as well as institutions -- is growing. Never before has a college degree had a greater effect in determining social status in America.
Yet schools across the country are ineffective at educating many children in the lowest income brackets. Additionally, the nation's wealthiest and most selective colleges are failing to enroll large numbers of poor students. Whether a student earns a bachelor's degree is largely determined by class.
Between 1996 and 2002, most of the growth in the proportion of young adults with bachelor's degrees came from gains among students in the highest income group. That data suggests that low-income students are falling further behind their wealthier counterparts in higher education and therefore earning potential.
Recipients of bachelor's degrees make more money over their lifetimes than do those with associate's degrees or high school diplomas.
While the education gap grows, so does the poverty gap. The level of education attained has a huge effect on earnings potential. In 2002, average annual earnings for those with advanced degrees were $72,824; $51,194 for those with bachelor's degrees; $27,280 for those with high school diplomas and $18,826 for non-graduates.
According to a Census Bureau report from 2003, the average high school graduate will have lifetime earnings of $1.2 million, while the average college graduate's lifetime earnings will be $2.1 million.
Failed education not only limits earning potential, but often forces people into other entrapping systems like prison, debt and predatory loans, insurmountable health care costs, and little or no asset building and future planning. These systems are interrelated in their failures for the poor and support for the wealthy.
Therefore, Improving our education system must be a first step to increasing earning potential and reducing income disparity. Our school systems can no longer fail children, forcing them into a cycle of poverty and limited opportunities.
Sarah Larson lives in Westwood and is pursuing a graduate degree in social work at the University of Kansas.