It's a commonplace in American public discourse to equate education with social mobility.
In the popular imagination, the preeminent virtue of education rests on a certain work-coefficient perceived to be attached to it: The more effort you put into your studies, the more you get out of them. This product resulting from your efforts will not simply make the effort ... well ... worth the effort, it will in fact bring truly handsome returns. Education has therefore long represented the talisman by which minorities, children of the working class, or the otherwise disadvantaged could vault into the broad middle classes, where Rockwellian well-being and satisfaction awaited them.
Higher education enjoys particular esteem in this respect, having long been considered the springboard nonpareil into middle-class prosperity. This seems on its face easy enough to swallow. A college degree signifies that you are a person holding a special sort of knowledge uncommon enough to command a higher price in the job market than say those whose expertise involves how to work a shovel.
What you're seldom told, however, is that this proposition is bound by certain inflexible conditions. In his provocatively title 1999 book, How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education, David F. Labaree exposes the dark side of this educational Horatio-Alger myth. "The social mobility approach to education implies a pyramid of educational opportunity, analogous to the pyramid of available jobs, with the educational credentials market providing the link between the two," he writes.
This model requires a high rate of educational attrition in order to be effective. Because the top of the occupational pyramid contains only a small number of the most desirable jobs, education can provide access to these jobs for only a small number of students.
Simply put, that certain people become thoracic surgeons, NASA engineers, corporate officers, or foreign ambassadors owes to the fact that the vast many who aspire to such occupations never manage to occupy them, either as a result of a lack of ability or opportunity. There will always be more need for ditches to be dug than atoms to be split or treaties to be negotiated, and through the magic of existing class relations, ditch diggers remains in steady supply. Generally, speaking, the more common the type of work, the lower its degree of skill; and the lower its degree of skill, the lower its wage.
A college education's main attraction, then, is that it presents itself as a conduit out of the low-skill-low-wage dungeon. Because Americans believe in fair play, they like to get behind initiatives that "level the playing field," that prevent the already privileged from simply adding to their privilege. To enable this noble aim initiatives were advanced that sought to provide aspirants with college-tuition assistance.
One such initiative, the Pell Grant, a keystone of the American meritocratic project, has fallen on hard times, thanks to the recent recession and its lingering aftermath. In a January 5, 2011 piece for Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, Charles Dervarics takes stock of the Pell Grant's predicament. "In a political climate rife with calls to limit federal spending, Pell Grants can pose an easy target," he writes. "Federal funding for the program has doubled since 2008 to more than $30 billion, mainly due to heavy use in the recession and a pledge by lawmakers to increase the top grant for needy students." Of course, its increase since 2008 has only made it a fatter target for legislators in 2011 eager to trim federal spending. Yesterday's political expedient is today's political sacrifice, it seems.
What's missing from all this fiscal belt-tightening rhetoric is that this increase in funding for Pell Grants responded to a real need. "Factor in a shortfall of $5.7 billion -- caused by a major uptick in the number of eligible low-income students -- and it’s a situation that makes some higher education leaders nervous," Dervarcis continues. Though Pell Grant funding increased substantially since 2008, the number of people needing such assistance increased even more substantially.
Where does this put the Pell Grant? At the center of a deepening crisis -- one that admits of no easy answers. An effective remedy against the misery of wage slavery, the Pell Grant now finds itself in jeopardy, perhaps precisely as a result of its effectiveness. Those at the top of the pyramid know there's not much available real estate where they sit, and it seems they'll find any excuse to gate their increasingly exclusive community.