Eduardo Padrón: How Higher Education Can Address Growing Inequality and Declining Social Mobility

Note: This is a condensed version of the 2017 Dallas Herring Lecture, delivered at NC State on Tuesday, October 3. A full-length edition of Dr. Padrón’s Lecture is forthcoming. You can watch the Lecture here.

These days often feel like we’re under siege in higher education, at the mercy of forces we cannot control. We really don’t know what our institutions and classrooms will look like in the years ahead. We need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves who and what we can be in a 21st century America.

Will we be an engine of inequality or the best hope of people trying to build lives in this new America?

The facts should give us pause: The share of bachelor’s degrees to students from the bottom of the income spectrum has decreased from 12 percent to 10 percent since 1970. Nearly three times as many students from families with incomes of $150,000 or more earned bachelor’s degrees compared to students from poor homes.

Not surprisingly, the United States has one of the lowest college completion rates among advanced nations. Worse, we have asked low-income students, “How much debt and disappointment are you willing to risk?”

As educators, this is a conversation we must have. We are anything but powerless when we have this conversation, but we need to ask ourselves where our power comes from. If we’re to use our power and take on the challenge of inequality, we need to truly know what learning means to every person who crosses our doorstep—and more importantly, what it means to those who do not.

It’s not just the prosperity of families and communities at stake. It’s the notion that college isn’t for me, that it doesn’t matter if I continue learning—that notion is given license today. And that is an American travesty against the most enduring of our principles. It is an injury to the inborn need in each one of us to learn.

I am afflicted by the feeling that we have to do something about this.

Across the entire bottom 60 percent of income distribution, incomes have barely moved in more than 50 years. The great American middle class has been sinking. By contrast, households in the top 5 percent have enjoyed a 37.5 percent increase since 1989, according to Census data.

Economic inequality has also widened along racial lines. Despite the losses of the economic crisis in 2008, whites still maintain net worth at 13 times that of Black families and more than 10 times that of Hispanics. This is our country’s history of race and class shouting to us in higher education to take the lead in addressing it.

The other pillar of this discussion is declining economic mobility, the hope that each generation will do better than previous one. But slow economic growth and income inequality converge into a dead end for people on the wrong end of the income spectrum. Recent findings published by Stanford indicate that nearly half of young American children have lost upward mobility in just over a generation’s time.

The current circumstance did not simply appear out of thin air. The G.I. Bill of 1944 dramatically changed the economic and social strata of the nation, allowing returning soldiers of every stripe to go to college, move to the suburbs, and establish mainstream, middle-class lives. Yet the country’s racial attitudes persisted. The introduction of Pell Grants and civil rights activism did help minorities to attend college in greater numbers, though not nearly comparable to enrollment of white students. The 1980s brought major cuts to the Pell grant, and policies that shifted support for higher education from taxpayer-funded grants to bank-based federal loans began a different trend, one that has endured to this day.

Today, higher education leaders must litigate the same question with legislators: Is learning a need or a luxury for those who can afford it? Today, education for the common good, a staple of democracy, has been cleaved down to an individual asset.

Since 2008, state funding for higher education has plunged 18 percent per student. Another recent study, presented at the Association for the Study of Higher Education in 2015, found that the colleges that served mostly white, more affluent students received more of their funding from the state. The colleges that served minority, primarily low-income students, relied more heavily on tuition payments from students.

Let’s stand back from the damning statistics and confront a deeper reality. Our country is changing. We will be a minority-majority nation in about 25 years. If we’re to uproot the years of inequality and declining economic mobility, we will need to recognize that these challenges are as much about us as people as they are about ideas and policies. This suggests clearly where change begins, and all too often where it hits a brick wall.

What community colleges do to promote opportunity and mobility is combine access, affordability, and academic excellence. Students are being driven to community colleges by high costs elsewhere in higher education. Efforts to send more low-income students to top universities miss the point. They are egalitarian in intention but elitist in practice.

A high school diploma today used to be a ticket to the middle class, but today it is a ticket to the cycle of poverty. Our great universities cannot fulfill higher education’s promise to this country alone. Hundreds of colleges and thousands of brilliant educators span the higher education landscape. We need to fight for the resources to help them be great, too. If we don’t address this larger challenge, we will continue to reinforce income inequality with dire consequences.

I always come back to the notion that we are not powerless. There are steps we can take to address economic inequality and declining social mobility.

Reclaim the Meaning of Prestige: Let’s reorder the calculus of how many students we turn away toward how many ways we can open the learning community to more people. I’m sure U.S. News & World Report is making a fine profit, but it’s a morally corrupt enterprise that is stoking an arms race, driving up budgets, and reinforcing the exclusivity of a college education.

Reclaim Vocational Education: Let’s also reclaim vocational education and rename it higher education. We need to construct “degree ladders” or “stackable credentials.” As Professor Carnavale has said, “All the returns to the economy are coming from higher education now. Our ability to expand that is key.”

Link Higher Education to Entrepreneurial Energy: We need to link higher education to the entrepreneurial energy bursting forth in the nation’s metro areas. We can help a new generation of Gates and Jobs and Zuckerbergs to emerge from their garage workshops. Opening the door to low-income students can be done at a reasonable cost.

Keep Making the Case for College Learning: We need to keep making the case for the undeniable social and economic benefits of college learning to our legislators. Our business partners can help us make the case. As community colleges and universities across the country develop affordable and timely connections to the regional workforce, business CEOs should be at our side in the state capitol.

Build Comprehensive Support Systems for Students: Let’s build support systems for our students every bit as comprehensive as our academic agendas. Most students arrive at our colleges straining to grow up and deal with the pressures of college. While it’s especially true for low-income students, the research shows that far too many students from every economic and achievement level fall by the wayside. Assuming students will succeed simply because they’re smart is a recipe for losing a lot of them. We should remember Professor Carol Dweck’s assessment that the path to a growth mindset is a journey, not a proclamation.


We need to recognize our duty, as college educators, to the people struggling to find their place in a changing world. We need to fulfill our obligation to work with a new generation of students. We need to pride ourselves on how many students we include in this great learning enterprise, not how many we turn away. We need to embrace the understanding that talent is universal, but right now, opportunity is not. We need to change that equation.

And we have the power to do so.

Eduardo J. Padrón is President of Miami Dade College (Miami, FL). A refugee from Cuba in his youth, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.

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