A little while ago I linked to a piece by Malcolm Harris on what he calls the “generational war” being waged against American youth. Harris’s argument has been criticized from the left by a blogger named Freddie DeBoer who writes that he’s “using the language of revolution to justify what is, at its essence, a dispute among the ruling class,” making “a case that is simply antithetical to the left-wing project: the notion that recent college graduates are the dispossessed.”
College is, DeBoer writes, the province of the elite:
Less than a third of Americans has a bachelor’s degree. The racial college achievement gap is large, and it’s not shrinking; it’s growing. Social class is extremely determinative of access to college education. From 1970 to 2006, those from the highest income quartile had a better than 70 percent change of holding a college degree. Those in the lowest quartile? 10 percent.
This is an important argument, and so it’s important to point out that DeBoer gets it wrong.
Yes, the white and the wealthy are more likely to attend college than the black (and Latino) and the poor. That’s true. But it’s less true than it’s been in the past, not more. Just look at the numbers:
In 1975, 64.5% of high income Americans who graduated from high school went on directly to college, while 34.8% of low income high school graduates did, a ratio of 1.9 to 1. A wealthy student, in other words, was nearly twice as likely as a poor one to go immediately to college, even if they both graduated from high school. By 2009, that ratio had dropped to 1.5 to 1. (The gap in high school graduation rates by income has remained largely constant during the same period.)
Comparing educational outcomes by race shows similar results. In 1970, a white American 25 or older was 2.6 times as likely than a black American in the same age group to have a college degree. Today, that ratio is 1.5 to 1. When whites and Latinos are compared the gap has narrowed more slowly — from 2.5 to 1 in 1970 to 2.2 to 1 in 2010 — but again, the trend is positive.
(And though DeBoer doesn’t discuss gender, it’s worth pointing out how much things have changed there too — in 1960, men earned almost two-thirds of bachelor’s degrees and ninety percent of doctorates. By 2009, women were earning 58% of all degrees granted in the United States, and more than half of doctorates.)
There are still racial and economic barriers to higher education, of course, and the issues that Harris identified are prominent among them. But DeBoer’s characterization of college students as white and privileged ignores major changes that have taken place in the demographics higher education in recent decades, perpetuating the tired stereotype of student activists as coddled whiners.
The American student body does not reflect the nation as a whole, not yet. But it comes closer to doing so than it ever has in the past, and the folks in Occupy who are fighting for higher education access and student debt relief are fighting to bring it even closer.