For all the impassioned rhetoric about social mobility during last year’s presidential campaign, neither candidate talked much about public education. Partisan fracas about makers and takers dominated the headlines, reducing the problem of America’s growing socioeconomic divide to a one-dimensional debate over income and taxes. More complex questions about inherited privilege—in particular the cultural capital gained by having college-educated parents—fell by the wayside.

“Cultural capital” is something of a loaded term, associated with French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s deterministic view of class inequality as socially inherited and reproducible through educational advantage. But it is hard to know how else to understand the fact that, as Bloomberg’s Evan Soltas points out, a child’s likelihood of attending college today (a practical requirement for entry into the middle class) is determined more by their parents’ education level than family income.

Looking at the diagram above (adapted from Thomas Lumley, who offers a cleaned-up version of Soltas’s data), you can see how this intergenerational effect declines at higher income levels, suggesting that cost remains a major barrier to college access. Yet the difference between the two graphs is startling: poor children with a college-educated father attend college and graduate school at about the same rate as higher-income children with a high school-educated father. The effect is even more pronounced for high school graduation, where the drop-out rate surges for children of non-college-educated parents regardless of income.

This distinction is well-known among educators, who have long observed the influence of students’ family background on their future academic success. While household income is a major factor in college affordability—in particular the opportunity to graduate debt-free—children with college-educated parents are more likely to be told from a young age that higher education is expected as a kind of class imperative, sustaining an educational aristocracy as valuable as inherited wealth.

This inequality of cultural capital cannot be solved by traditional redistribution, posing a unique problem for policymakers. How can government intervene to expand opportunity and promote equal access when the data suggest elusive factors like family connections and expectations are the key to higher education? What legislation can address the fact that, as Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery show, talented children from poor socioeconomic backgrounds—often in rural areas where few people go to college—don’t presume to apply to full-scholarship colleges like Harvard or Yale, even when they have excelled academically in high school?

It is easy to look at these problems and write them off as a failure of personal responsibility or a lack of vision—a misconception sustained by the occasional Horatio Alger success story. But in reality, the lack of educational mobility between generations is perpetuated by a de facto policy of “separate but equal” schools for rich and poor students. Better teachers can only do so much to offset the myriad psychological and developmental costs incurred by socioeconomic segregation.  

“Poor children can learn to high levels, but they are much more likely to do so if they are surrounded by peers with big dreams,” writes Richard Kahlenberg, a Senior Fellow at The Century Foundation and an expert on education reform. They need “a community of parents who are in a position to volunteer in class and know how to hold school officials accountable and talented teachers with high expectations”—conditions that are more likely to be found in affluent schools.

As an example, Kahlenberg points to research he supervised in Montgomery County, Maryland, where low-income students and their families were randomly assigned to public housing and schools in affluent neighborhoods, controlling for the issue of self-selection by motivated parents. Surrounded by middle-class peers, the study found the relocated students “performed much higher in math than comparable students assigned to higher-poverty neighborhoods and schools—even though the latter spent $2,000 more per pupil.”
Reform-oriented policymakers across the country are taking note: today, 80 school districts educating 4 million students have taken up socioeconomic integration with positive results. These plans “don’t rely on compulsory-style busing like that used in the 1970s but instead on voluntary choice, and incentives like magnet schools,” says Kahlenberg. At the same time, socioeconomic integration—like class-based affirmative action at the college level—avoids the legal challenges associated with racial criteria. 

Perhaps most importantly, public policy that emphasizes educational mobility holds the potential for bipartisan support down the road. Although socioeconomic integration is an approach more commonly associated with progressive politics, social conservatives could find much to like in a policy that promotes school choice and a success-oriented educational environment as the basis for academic achievement. Instead of shaming low-income families into adopting bourgeois educational values, as Ross Douthat and Megan McArdle have suggested, socioeconomic integration would make middle-class cultural capital more widely accessible, leveling the academic playing field for all.