Completing a degree at an elite American university is considered a springboard to a successful career. But do enough people have a chance at landing a spot at top colleges?
American universities enjoy an excellent reputation around the world. More than 700,000 foreign students attended them last year, and the majority of them came from China, India, South Korea and Canada. For many Americans, going to college is a goal that involves big investments of time and money.
Those who attend the country's elite universities like Columbia, Harvard, Princeton and Yale, famous as members of the Ivy League, or their peer institutions like Stanford and Duke have access to some recruiting and job opportunities not readily available to others. The Ivy League has also long been a breeding ground for presidents, Supreme Court judges, CEOs and countless managers and Wall Street bankers.
Tens of thousands in tuition
Writer and critic William Deresiewicz is a Columbia graduate who taught English at Yale from 1998 to 2008 and sees problems with equal access under the present system.
"Education is the way that people advance in their society, it’s the way people secure their class position - that has been true for a long time," he observed.
Middle class parents in particular are often keen on sending their children to elite colleges. But median earners in the US may find they lack the money to keep up in the race for the few, highly sought spots at top schools. Those with enough means, on the other hand, can send their children to private schools, hire test coaches and tutors and also pay for extra courses, Deresiewicz explains.
"All of those things can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year in addition to private school tuition," he said.
Outstanding test grades, achievements in and out of the classroom, trips abroad, volunteer experience and membership in sports clubs are what help students make their way into the exclusive club.
Saving on education
Youth from lower social classes who are expected to work in their free time and contribute to the family's income have much less of a chance to compete. The lower middle class can scarcely afford to keep up now. Their children find their way to universities like Harvard much less often than those from well-off families. This outcome stems partly from cuts to public education systems - cuts which also affect colleges.
"California, Michigan and Wisconsin used to have public universities where students could get a great education," Deresiewicz said. "That is still true to a certain extent, but these schools have really been devastated by budget cuts."
Since the 1980s, state support has dropped by 30 percent, and the trend continues. Republicans, in particular, argue for lower taxes, which they also finance with cuts to education.
The lower middle class lacks more than just access to the most renowned educational institutions.
"What is missing in the USA are the skilled laborers who have made German industry strong with their sophisticated education in fundamentals and their flexibility," said Thomas Zielke, Germany's official representative on trade and industry to the US.
The centuries-long tradition of guilds and workshops from which the vocational professions were born does not exist in the USA as it does in Germany and other parts of Europe.
Financial aid for community colleges
President Obama has declared overcoming the lack of trained workers a priority. He wants to spend 8 billion dollars (6.36 billion euros) for a Community College to Career Fund, which would aim at financing partnerships between industry and community colleges. He would like to put the emphasis on the health, transportation and manufacturing sectors.
The goal is to train two million Americans and help them land jobs. Community college degrees take between two and four years to complete, providing training for nurses, welders and other professionals.
The fund's proposed eight billion dollars sounds like a lot, but the sum will have to be distributed over a number of years and institutions, notes Stephen Steigleder, an education expert at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. Steigleder believes public financing of education is the only way to begin closing the gap between the lower, middle and upper classes.
Expensive, one-sided education
"Currently the average student graduates with $27,000 (21,400 euros) in debt," Steigleder said. That can spell much too high of a burden for those who end up with average salaries after school. Pell grants, government financial aid that does not have to be paid back, are intended to ease the load. The grants amount to $5,500 annually per student.
"That costs the state around 30 billion dollars per year," said Steigleder, who believes another important factor in reaching a solution is strengthening the reputation of blue-collar professions.
"We would like to close the gap in the perception of prestige between a blue-collar worker who earns 50,000 dollars per year and a lawyer who earns 200,000," he said.
With a college degree, Deresiewicz says, a person can work in a variety of professions - not just in respected, traditional areas like law, medicine, finance and consulting. The author refers to the current trend towards elite university education as "misdirection of talent," narrowing a person's sense of options in his or her life and leading to negative social repercussions. A bad grade for the country's leading institutions.
Author: Christina Bergmann, Washington / gsw
Editor: Jessie Wingard
Each week DW brings you personal stories from around the globe.
A weekly look at globalization, education, economic development, human rights and more.
This weekly one-hour radio show brings you personal tales behind the news headlines.