Education has long been considered one of the gateways to socioeconomic success in the United States. In today’s labor market, however, education is more essential to lifelong economic success than ever before.
As Alan Krueger, President Obama’s Chairman of the Council of the Economic Advisers, explains, the American economy is experiencing a “skill-biased technology change,” where technology, automation, and globalization are replacing the need for low-skill labor (2012). As demand for low-skill labor declines, individuals without a high school or college degree are having an increasingly difficult time finding gainful employment than their counterparts did in previous decades.
On the other hand, individuals with analytic skills and college degrees have benefited from this skill-biased technology change, as these individuals have the educational training to meet the demands of the changing labor market. The decline in union membership (20 percent in 1982 compared to 12 percent in 2012) has further decreased the availability of livable wages and job security for employees with lower levels of education, as unions have been shown to protect low-skill jobs from unequal shifts in the labor market (Card, as cited in Krueger, 2012). In many cases, less educated workers are forced to work at or near the minimum wage, an hourly rate that has decreased in relative value since the 1980s (Lee, as cited in Krueger, 2012).
The Education Wage Gap
This economic shift is one of the primary reasons the wage gap between high school graduates and college graduates has soared over the past four decades, contributing to an increase in economic inequality in the United States.
- While education had been a predictor of income for several generations, according to The Hamilton Project, over the past 40 years, incomes for college graduates have increased by more than one-third while decreasing for individuals with only a high school degree or less (Greenstone, Harris, Li, Looney, Patashnik, 2012).
- The National Center for Education Statistics (2012) reports that in 2010, the median annual income for a young adult with a bachelor’s degree was $45,000, compared with $37,000 for an associate’s degree, $29,900 for those with a high school diploma, and $21,000 for those without a high school degree or GED.
These statistics suggest that young adults with a college degree earn 50 percent more than individuals with only a high school degree and twice as much as individuals who did not complete high school.
- The Pew Charitable Trust (2012) cites that over 80 percent of those who do not complete high school earn less than $30,000 annually, and nearly half are unemployed compared with only 15 percent of college graduates.
- According to Looney and Greenstone (2011), after adjusting for inflation, the median annual income for a male in 1970 with only a high school degree was close to $50,000, compared with $26,000 in 2012.
This increasing income differential between high school and college degree earners represents a fundamental shift in the educational needs of American citizens. Today, education is not simply a gateway to economic improvement but is one of the key mechanisms for economic survival. While there was a time when an individual with a high school degree could participate and prosper in the middle class, this phenomenon is no longer a reality. Our current economy demands that Americans receive quality basic education to better insure their success in institutions of higher learning.
The Importance of Education for Low-Income Students
Today education represent the primary vehicle for economic mobility. This fact is especially true for low-income students. According to the Pew Charitable Trust’s Economic Mobility Project (2012):
- A four-year college degree programs was the largest source of economic mobility and stability for those living in poverty.
- Only 10 percent of people with a college degree raised in the bottom quintile of family income remained there in adulthood, compared to half of those who did not go to college.
- Having a college degree makes a person three times more likely to rise from the bottom of the economic spectrum all the way to the top.
- While individuals at the bottom quintile of family income are the least likely to surpass their parents’ income or wealth, a college degree earners from the bottom quintile of family income make the largest gains in absolute wealth compared with the income level they were raised in, and 85 percent had greater income than their parents did.
What these figures represent is that successfully completing high school followed by successfully completing college are essential steps for lifting people out of poverty.
Education, Income, and Well-Being
While income and wealth are not the only benefits of education, the realities of living in poverty make the link between education and income hard to ignore. Beyond income, however, higher levels of education have been shown to:
- Increase health and longevity,
- Increase civic participation,
- Decrease crime and incarceration rates (Lochner, 2011).
- Increase in productivity,
- Decrease in reliance on disability and welfare payments,
- Increase marriage rates,
- Decease the likelihood of raising children in poverty (Greenstone, Harris, Li, Looney, Patashnik, 2012).
While many of these factors may be related to income, citizens with higher levels of education have better access to information about health and preventative care, child development, personal finances, risk-behavior and lifestyle choices compared with individuals with less education.
Conclusion and the Role of Social Workers
Education in the 21st century represents a critical avenue for economic mobility, security, and social prosperity. In short, higher education has become the primary gateway to the middle class. However, higher education is still discussed as an “option” in many American schools and the high cost of colleges and universities reinforces old believes that college is a “privileged” experience. Both of these notions are false and the mechanisms supporting them must be reformed. Higher education must be affordable and our high schools must be explicitly designed to prepare and transition student into higher education settings.
The definition of higher education must also be explored. How well do trade schools equip students with marketable skills? Some trade schools are excellent while others simply bring people an inch above the poverty line. As such, some technical education programs should be considered higher education and supported, while others should be improved or phased out.
Social workers can play a pivotal role in helping families and systems adjust to the realities of the skill-biased technology change:
- When we work with families and adolescents, we can empower our clients to make more informed decisions about the future by making them aware of this valuable information.
- We can further transform our direct practice orientation to where higher education is a universal treatment goal and desired outcome for all consumers.
- When working in school settings we can foster a college-bound culture among our students and fellow faculty, and address shortcomings within administrations where failing to continue education remains acceptable.
- In community practice settings we can advocate a “cradle to college” continuum of care and bolster support for community colleges, scholarships, and higher education transition/support programs.
- Politically, we can advocate for continued education reform, an investment in schools serving low-income communities, support legislation aimed at making higher education more affordable and continuing support to effective community-colleges and trade schools.
- Finally, in schools of social work, we must ensure that social work students understand that education is a one of the primary empowerment method for out clients and is one of the most successfully mechanism for overcoming disenfranchisement.
The skill-biased technology change in the American labor market is real and we have yet to fully adjust to it. While raising the minimum wage is an important step towards supporting low-income workers, this effort will not be enough to combat the effects of the changing demand for labor. Higher education must become the norm and it should be accessible to ALL Americans.
Lochner, L. (2011). The importance of education on crime, health and mortality, and civic engagement. The Vox Organization.
Looney, A., Greenstone, M. (2011). What is happening to America’s less-skilled workers? The importance of education and training in today’s economy. The Hamilton Project
Krueger, A. (2012). The rise and consequences of inequality in the United States. The White House Blogs.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2012). The Condition of Education 2012 (NCES 2012- 045). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC.
Pew Charitable Trust. (2012). Perusing the American dream: economic mobility across generations. July 2012 Report. Washington D.C.: Author.
Project-Based Learning for the Virtual Classroom
Project-based learning (PBL) may not be the first thing that teachers consider when planning for remote or hybrid lessons. However, with a little creativity and an organized approach, project-based learning can engage students in a way that may be lacking during typical virtual instruction. So what is it, exactly? PBL, simply put, is an approach to learning through exploration of a real-world problem or question. Ideally, students choose to investigate a problem or challenge that means something to them – something that impacts their daily lives. Then, through research, collaboration, and exploration, students gain a deeper understanding of the issue or challenge and how they can contribute to a solution. Even more important is the fact that, through project-based learning, students gain a better understanding of who they are as learners and critical thinkers. With being said, let’s look at how instructors can utilize PBL in virtual settings.
How to Organize PBL for Remote Learning
“Embrace the chaos of now” by asking students to discuss what is currently troubling them. When students have a vested interest in their classwork, they will obviously be more inclined to engage in the work and follow through on the assignment. Ask about challenges or problems they’ve been having, such as:
- What has been your biggest struggle with adapting to virtual/remote learning?
- What needs are not being met in this “new normal?”
- How has your daily routine changed since the start of the pandemic?
- What is a problem that you see your peers, neighbors, teachers, community struggling with?
After students have identified an issue or challenge that they personally recognize in their day-to-day lives, ask them to do a little preliminary brainstorming about the problem using a standard KWL chart. The KWL chart is an old favorite in the classroom for any sort of introduction to a new topic, concept, or unit. For project-based learning, the KWL chart provides students with a visual starting point and a trajectory for where their research is headed. The graphic organizer, for those who have not used it before acts as a simple t-chart to organize what students already know (K) about the topic, what they want (W) to know about the topic, and what they learn (L) throughout their research process. This simple visual aid acts as the foundation for critical thinking by visually, yet simply, organizing a student’s thoughts.
Next, you can help students with backward design or backward mapping by outlining objectives first. Again, project-based learning is all about allowing students to explore a challenge and identify a resolution or fix for the problem. In order to adequately lay out the groundwork, students must have a clear and definitive end goal. Therefore, in planning for success, teachers need to help students employ backward mapping strategies by beginning with something like a S.M.A.R.T. (Specific. Measurable. Attainable. Relevant. Timely.) goal—then working backward from there to achieve that goal.
Instructors can also utilize haptic engagement or hands–on learning by encouraging students to physically try out or experiment with their ideas. Teachers can model this experiential learning by choosing their own PBL to focus on while kids are working. Show students that, in order to truly solve a problem, people must occasionally get their hands dirty. It is also important for teachers to note that success stories are almost always trial and error—a sound solution will not come right away. By testing hypotheses and modifying approaches, students truly understand the value of hands–on, experiential learning. Not only are these demonstrations helpful for getting closer to a solution, but haptic engagement also teaches students about grit, perseverance, and strategies around error analysis.
Another great skill set that students may develop while participating in PBL classroom activities involves retrieval practice. Since students are focusing their work on one primary challenge, they are able to hone their focus and truly absorb new information as they learn. Teachers can help foster retrieval strategies with activities such as Cornell note-taking, peer teaching, and Socratic seminars, in which students take the lead in delivering information to one another.
Try some of these PBL strategies out in your next lesson, whether it be virtual or in-person, and see the results for yourself.
New Preschool Program in Oregon is a Model for the Nation—But Challenges Remain
In November 2020, voters in Multnomah County, home to the city of Portland, resoundingly approved the creation of a new, universal preschool program—a program that could serve as a model for desperately needed preschool and childcare investments for the entire country. All three- and four-year-olds in Multnomah county will be able to attend a free, year-round, universal, high quality preschool program that meets their needs as well as those of most families, providers and staff, and local businesses. Key elements include a wide range of choices for families as well as living wages and professional supports for providers and workers. The program is slated to be equitably funded by a local income tax on the highest income households.
Two big challenges remain: ensuring that families with “non-traditional” work schedules are included, and significantly increasing public investment in facilities to allow preschools to expand well beyond church basements and providers’ homes. Those working non-traditional hours are disproportionately low-income, women, people of color, and often “essential workers” without whom our society and economy would not function. Federal childcare initiatives must address the needs of families with such work schedules, or the families that most need public child care will be left out.
A Universal Model that Serves Diverse Needs
Universal preschool programs benefit all children and lead to better outcomes than means-tested programs for the most disadvantaged children. Means-tested programs such as Head Start seek to deliver services only to households with low incomes. Although means-tested programs “target the poor,” universal programs bring children and families from across the socioeconomic spectrum together, challenging ongoing race, ethnic and class segregation that erodes democracy. Universality also inspires broad support to maintain adequate funding. After fifty well-regarded years, Head Start is still available—but only for a fraction of eligible families, and even then, often only part-time and part-year. High quality preschool and child care is out of reach for the large majority of families who already face the high cost of housing, health care, and student debt with stagnating wages. Importantly, universal preschool is both a two-generation anti-poverty program and a powerful boost to economic development, because it returns $9.45 to the community for every dollar spent.
Families raising young children are diverse and need a wide range of options. Multnomah County’s new Preschool for All program will offer choices of:
- language and cultural contexts, including Afro-centric and other alternatives,
- types of setting, including family childcare providers, public schools and free-standing centers, and
- schedules, including school year and year-round, full and part-time, weekend days as well as week days, with up to 50 hours a week for families that need or want longer days
Children with disabilities will be included, facilitating earlier identification of health issues and treatment. Expulsions, now too common in preschool settings particularly for children of color, will be prohibited, requiring that the system provide supportive interventions to meet all children’s needs.
Fair Pay and Professional Support for Providers and Workers
Currently, U.S. family childcare providers, preschool teachers, and childcare workers earn poverty wages with few benefits and often cope with difficult working conditions. The result is high turnover; the loss of skilled, experienced and dedicated workers to jobs that better support their families; and damage to the quality of care. High quality child care depends on the ongoing relationships caregivers develop with families, children, and co-workers.
Multnomah County’s new Preschool for All program will pay teachers comparably with kindergarten teachers, doubling their current salaries. The wage floor for assistant teachers and other classroom staff will be set at nearly $20 an hour when the program starts in Fall 2022, with pay levels adjusted to reward increasing skills, training and experience. Continuing professional development will be geared to the schedules of the low-income working parents who are over-represented among preschool workers. Should workers wish to join a union, employers will be required to remain neutral.
Funding universal high quality child care is within reach. Over the past 40 years, U.S. economic gains have been concentrated on an ever smaller group of the wealthy, while responsibility for paying for our infrastructure and public services has been shifted from the affluent to the working and middle classes. Reversing such trends, Multnomah County’s preschool program is to be funded by a county income tax on approximately eight percent of households at the top. Combined federal, state, and local income tax rates for such households will still fall far below the top tax federal income tax rates in place for the much of the 20th century, from the 1930s through the 1970s.
Multnomah County intends to offer preschool up to ten hours a day and on weekend days, but has not committed to other “non-traditional” hours. Employers demand “non-traditional” work schedules for the three occupations expected to add the most jobs between 2019 and 2029: home health and personal care aides, fast food and counter workers, and restaurant cooks. Many retail and hospitality positions also entail low wages and employer insistence that workers maintain “open availability,” and healthcare, construction, and gig workers struggle with work schedules that make it very difficult to find child care.
Multnomah County will pay fair wages to everyone working in the classroom, but will not supplement the pay of people working in Head Start and other public preschool and childcare programs that pay too little to retain skilled people in the face of a more attractive alternative. The county plans to support some infant and toddler programs, but won’t be able to overcome the severe shortage of affordable, quality care for these age groups, likely to be exacerbated by competition from a preschool system offering better compensation. Finally, preschool and child care is now crowded into inexpensive or public spaces; serving all children well will require a significant investment in physical facilities.
Despite such continuing challenges, Multnomah County’s Preschool for All offers a national model, with its variety of choices to families, living wages for all classroom staff, and an equitable approach to public funding. Each of these aspects needs to be included in any new federal program. In addition, a new federal program should aspire to offer high quality child care to families struggling with difficult work schedules, until labor legislation is revised to place limits on such unpredictable schedules. Strategies will also need to be implemented to improve the wages of workers in Head Start and other public preschool and childcare programs.
Why Political Science Can and Should Lead Diversity Efforts in Higher Education
Diversity is big business in the academy. Foundations such as Ford, Carnegie, and Robert Wood Johnson support academic efforts to diversify the professoriate; and colleges and universities across the country are investing significant resources in diversity efforts. Furthermore, the academy has begun hiring chief diversity officers, following corporate sector trends — 60% of Fortune 500 companies have chief diversity officers among their top-executives.
Although the numbers of women in political science have shown modest growth over the last two decades, the number of women of color in the field has largely remained flat. Political science scholarship on minority representation in U.S. legislatures sheds light on this professional conundrum, too. This literature shows how organized women, racial and ethnic minorities, and their allies can promote diversity and inclusive practices to bring about lasting change in political science, other disciplines and higher education more broadly.
An Opportune Moment for Political Science
Research on social movements shows that, when windows of opportunity arise, activists must have the resources to change the status quo and push for policy breakthroughs. I suggest that heightened attention to institutional diversity across academia presents an opportunity that political scientists can and should seize by presenting themselves as credible stakeholders who are well-equipped to: steward institutions’ newly available resources, run innovative pilot programs, and produce returns on institutional diversity investments for both students and faculty.
Student demands will be a key resource in these efforts, but administrators can often “wait students out” — stalling student diversity efforts until a new cohort must begin afresh. Political Science is uniquely positioned to lead institutional change by using research from the discipline to encourage student activists to investigate the issues, formulate long- and short-term goals, determine the scope of their influence, identify allies and opponents, construct informed arguments, and make specific demands with measurable outcomes. This informed activism can help students leverage their status over time as students, alumni, and donors to move towards shared goals for departmental, disciplinary, and institutional change.
Political Science is attracting many undergraduate women majors. Women are faring as well as men on the discipline’s job market. They are approaching pay equity with male colleagues and increasing their presence in the ranks of full professors. In 2010, women of color comprised 13.5% of female political science faculty, more than double their share in 1980. Although this improvement remains relatively modest compared to the nearly 300% increase in women faculty over that span, the progress for women of color is promising and can act as a foundation for future diversity efforts. Nevertheless, many challenges must still be addressed — including burdens of balancing tenure-track and family responsibilities, “inhospitable” institutional climates, and research norms that discount women’s contributions to collaborative work.
Building a Diversity Infrastructure
Sheer numbers are the first requirement for building diversity infrastructure. With sufficient numbers, members of gender and racial caucuses can promote further change and build organizational capacities. Research on the impact of diversity in Congress shows that the Congressional Black, Hispanic, and Asian Pacific American caucuses encourage information and resource sharing, enhanced communication, and collective action on behalf of racial and ethnic minorities. Through caucuses, task forces, and organized voting blocs, minority legislators have kept low-salience civil rights issues on the congressional agenda despite waning public interest. Women’s and racial and ethnic caucuses in national and regional political science associations show that female political scientists can capitalize on their numbers to act as disruptive-insiders to further diversify faculties and challenge discrimination.
Buy-in from political science department heads who name search committees and from faculty making influential recommendations will be indispensable for furthering these efforts. Departmental objectives can be linked to university diversity efforts. Male faculty members should be encouraged to serve on diversity committees and act as change agents.
Thinking beyond individual departments, women’s caucuses and ethnic caucuses in political science associations could share resources and knowledge and coordinate agendas. If increasing the racial and ethnic diversity of the discipline is to be achieved, then women’s caucuses will need to work closely with race and ethnic caucuses in the discipline. Although universal sisterhood may be a worthy ideal, faculty women of color cannot be cast as handmaidens rather than full partners in the work of transforming the discipline.
Mentorship is Not Enough
The number of women of color entering political science faculties has stagnated, and many minority faculty members leave political science departments for more hospitable interdisciplinary centers. Recruitment and retention should therefore be top priorities — and that is going to take more than just mentoring programs.
Mentorship is a common answer to the challenge of recruiting, supporting, and retaining minority faculty. Mentoring, however, only teaches people how to survive in institutions. It does not necessarily attract more people to enter institutions, and it does not help them change institutions. Although the very presence of black women on academic faculties and in front of classrooms changes the academy, that is not enough. Despite widely shared good intentions, the discipline cannot rely on mentoring alone to help women of color overcome racism, sexism, and other systematic obstacles to their advancement. At best, mentoring will help women faculty of color expand their social networks, establish important professional relationships, and better navigate minefields. At worst, mentoring will help some individuals survive and advance, while maintaining longstanding power disparities in the discipline. Mentoring obviously cannot ameliorate the impediments that routinely challenge and undermine women of color at all ranks of the professoriate. Political science must lead the way in identifying and deploying all of the strategies that can bring broader progress in universities and disciplines.
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