Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Higher education and social mobility

There is an appalling level of inequality in American society; and even more troubling, the multiple dimensions of inequality seem to reinforce each other, with the result that disadvantaged groups remain disadvantaged across multiple generations. We can ask two different kinds of sociological questions about these facts: What factors cause the reproduction of disadvantage over multiple generations? And what policy interventions have some effect on enhancing upward social mobility within disadvantaged groups? How can we change this cycle of disadvantage?

Several earlier postings have addressed some aspects of the causal question (post, post). Here I'd like to consider the policy question -- and the question of how we can use empirical evidence to evaluate the effectiveness of large policy initiatives on social outcomes such as mobility.

One social policy in particular seems to have a lot of antecedent plausibility: a policy aimed at increasing the accessibility of higher education to the disadvantaged group. The theory is that individuals within the group will benefit from higher education by enhancing their skills and knowledge; this will give them new economic opportunities and access to higher-wage jobs; the individuals will do better economically, and their children will begin life with more economic support and a set of values that encourage education. So access to higher education ought to prove to be a virtuous circle or a positive feedback loop, leading to substantial social mobility in currently disadvantaged groups.

It is a plausible theory; but are there empirical methods through which we can evaluate whether it actually works this way?

Paul Attewell and David Lavin undertake to do exactly that in Passing the Torch: Does Higher Education for the Disadvantaged Pay Off Across the Generations?, published in 2007. Their research consists of a survey study of a cohort of poor women who were admitted to the City University of New York between 1970 and 1972 under an open-admissions policy. Thirty years later Attewell and Lavin surveyed a sample of the women in this group (about 2,000 women), gathering data about their eventual educational attainment, their income, and the educational successes of their children. Analysis of their data permitted them to demonstrate that attenders were likely to enjoy higher income than non-attenders and to have children who valued education at levels that were higher than the children of non-attenders.

The benefits of higher education in increasing personal income were significant; they find that in the population surveyed in 2000, the high school graduate earned $30,000, women with some college earned $35,000, women with the associate's degree earned $40,783, women with the bachelor's degree earned $42,063, and women with a postgraduate degree earned $54,545. In other words, there was a fairly regular progression in income associated with each further step in the higher education credential achieved. And they found -- contrary to conservative critics of open-access programs in higher education -- that these women demonstrated eventual completion rates that were substantially higher than 4-6 year graduation rates would indicate -- over 70% earned some kind of degree (table 2.2). "Our long-range perspective shows that disadvantaged women ultimately complete college degrees in far greater numbers than scholars realize" (4).

So access to higher education works, according to the evidence uncovered in this study: increasing access to post-secondary education is the causal factor, and improved economic and educational outcomes are the effect.

This is an important empirical study that sets out some of the facts that pertain to poverty and higher education. The study provides empirical confirmation for the idea that affordable and accessible mass education works: when programs are available that permit poor people to gain access to higher education, their future earnings and the future educational success of their children are both enhanced. It's a logical conclusion -- but one that has been challenged by conservative critics such as Bill Bennett. And given the increasing financial stress that public universities are currently experiencing due to declining state support for higher education, it is very important for policy makers to have a clear understanding of the return that is likely on the investment in affordable access to higher education.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Consumption and environmental collapse

Today the Dalai Lama presented a lecture on global environmental sustainability at the University of Michigan. One of his central points had to do with personal consumption and personal happiness: the fact that the planet simply cannot sustain the level of material consumption characteristic of affluent countries, in support of the world's population of over 6.5 billion people. He expressed his hope that we will come to think differently about happiness, fulfillment, and material consumption.

This message made me think of the very powerful analysis that is conveyed in an important recent book by James Gustave Speth, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. Speth has been an environmental scientist and policy expert for decades -- he is currently the dean of Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies -- and he has an understanding of the crisis that our global society faces that is just as powerful and fact-based as any I have read.

Speth opens his argument with a set of sixteen graphs over a time scale of 1750-2000. And they all have roughly the same shape: beginning at moderate levels in 1750, each of the variables show exponential growth that begins to accelerate in roughly 1900-1950. The variables? Population, total real GDP, foreign direct investment, damming of rivers, water use, fertilizer consumption, paper consumption, motor vehicles, CO2 consumption, ozone depletion, average surface temperature, great floods, ocean ecosystems, coastal biogeochemistry, loss of rain forest, global biodiversity. These graphs tell a powerful story in the aggregate: these are trends that cannot be sustained.

Or consider the second paragraph of the book:

Half of the world's tropical and temperate forests are now gone. The rate of deforestation in the tropics continues at about an acre a second. About half the wetlands and a third of the mangroves are gone. An estimated 90 percent of the large predator fish are gone, and 75 percent of marine fisheries are now overfished or fished to capacity. Twenty percent of the corals are gone, and another 20 percent severely threatened. Species are disappearing at rates about a thousand times faster than normal. The planet has not seen such a spasm of extinction in sixty-five million years, since the dinosaurs disappeared. Over half the agricultural land in drier regions suffers from some degree of deterioration and desertification. Persistent toxic chemicals can now be found by the dozens in essentially each and every one of us. (1-2)

This is the "edge of the world" to which the title refers.

Speth correctly notes that these environmental crisis lines all derive from the economic realities of accelerating economic growth since 1900. Economic activity consumes resources, produces waste products, and clears land for development. Moreover, he observes that the economies that we have created in the modern world place growth at the value center: the central goal of economic activity is to accumulate and grow. And yet he notes as well that often this growth is counter-productive; for example, he quotes the UNDP Human Development Report 1996 and its findings of jobless growth, ruthless growth, voiceless growth, rootless growth, and futureless growth. And he reviews some of the survey data about "personal happiness" that seems to support the point as well: past a certain threshold point, greater income doesn't bring greater happiness.

So if there is a bridge at the edge of the world -- what is it made of? What kind of transformation of the world's activity can slow and eventually reverse these catastrophic environmental trends?

Speth provides a hard but achievable prescription, and it is very much like that expressed by the Dalai Lama today in Ann Arbor: we must re-evaluate the meaning of life, we must change the way we think about material consumption, we must find happiness in activities that are not resource intensive, and we must tame our growth engines in the economic structures in which we live. Nothing less than a fundamental change in our personal philosophies and our economic structures will save the planet's welfare -- from rain forest to Great Lakes to fisheries to the air we breath and the water we drink.

Can we do it? It seems most unlikely. But it's probably the only way out.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today is a sad day of remembrance in America and the world. Forty years ago today Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis. And, followed by the murder of Robert Kennedy only a few months later, America's heart and history were jolted.

Dr. King's life devotion to the cause of racial justice in America is one of the most important legacies we have in this country. His moral clarity and his personal courage provided our generations with signposts we still haven't fully absorbed. And the work to which he devoted his life is unfinished. It is crucial for our future as a country that we make intelligent and compassionate progress based on this legacy.

It is so remarkably striking to me to see the different life experiences that white and black Americans have lived, especially the generation who are in their fifties and sixties today. These men and women were in their teens and twenties in 1968. They have clear, personal memories of that day in April forty years ago, and of the months that followed. For most African-American people in this group there are very specific, vivid, and personal memories of segregation and racism in their years of childhood and adolescence. Whether their experiences were of growing up in Arkansas or Chicago in the 1950s, most African-American people of this age cohort have deep and personal experiences of racism. And their memories of the murder of Dr. King have an urgency and personal sorrow that feels very different from the experience of white Americans of the same age.

My discipline is philosophy and I have taught social and political philosophy intermittently throughout my teaching career. At this stage of my career it is very striking to recall how mute this field of philosophy has been to the experience and structure of American racism. The ideas of equality, liberty, and justice are defining values in the field of social philosophy. And yet the topic of racial justice has not been a central focus; only rarely has it been even talked about as we consider the theories of Kant, Rousseau, Mill, or Rawls. And yet my whole education and career are framed by the murder of Martin and the candidacy of Barak. How could race not have been the central problem of social philosophy in America during these decades? It is a failure of collective social cognition, an instance of willful social blindness.

I think there is a connection between these two points. A part of teaching about principles of social justice should be a serious learning of the lived experience of injustice.

The majority in America is inching its way towards a commitment to racial justice. We can make further progress along this road if we will only listen in humility and silence to the experiences of racism that shaped the lives of so many millions of our fellow citizens.