The Land of Opportunity… no more? Declining social mobility and the potential of community college education in the U.S.

By Natalie Rauscher

When Raj Chetty and David Grusky et al. published their paper The Fading American Dream: Trends In Absolute Income Mobility since 1940 (Chetty et al. 2016) in 2016, it caused quite the stir. The paper was published as part of the Working Paper series by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) and looked at rates of absolute income mobility as an indicator for how much children earn compared to their parents over the generations. They found quite an alarming trend, namely that in 1940 90% of children earned more than their parents’ generation. In the 1980s, this rate had fallen to 50%. This means that social mobility between the generations has fallen sharply over the 20th century. Additionally, GDP growth over the same period did not lead to increased mobility, something which had been the case before the 1940s. Rather, the growth rates had led to a more unequal distribution of income between the different income groups.

Thus, Chetty et al. had dismantled the enduring idea of the US as the ultimate land of opportunity where you can make a better life for yourself and your children if only you work hard enough. This land-of-opportunity ideal stands for equal opportunities for everyone. Each American should have the chance to succeed, and it only depends on the individual to grasp these opportunities and make something for themselves.

But this time seems to have passed and, when looking at the numbers presented by Chetty and his colleagues, it has passed for a long time.

In a New York Times article of the same year, The American Dream, Quantified at Last, David Leonhardt gives his opinion on the American Dream, saying that it developed in the 1930s when historian James Truslow Adams defined the US in terms of ‘that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone.’ With the upswing of the US economy after the Great Depression, rapid economic growth lifted many families and following generations out of poverty. In JFK’s words, the post-WWII rising tide did indeed lift all boats. In the 1980s, this began to change quite dramatically. Factors ranging from globalization, technological change, declining unionization, government policies favoring the well-to-do, and a plateau of educational attainment in the US are all quoted as possible reasons why inequality began to rise. (Leonhardt 2016)

John Komlos also commented on this development, which we detailed in another blog post.

One solution to counter declining mobility could be higher and especially more widely shared economic growth. (Leonhardt 2016, Chetty et al. 2016) Education can play a large role here. As can be seen in the table below, millennials with some college education or a college degree are less likely to be unemployed or to live in poverty than those who have only graduated high school. It is obvious that a 4-year college degree is worth much more when it comes to income, but some college education can help quite a lot. Additionally, a 4-year college program comes with a significantly bigger price tag than a community college degree, and many Americans spend decades paying off their student debts from a 4-year program and even more from post-graduate education.

Therefore, community college education could play a much more significant part in the educational attainment of US citizens in the future. In a paper from 2017, authors Richard Romano and Pamela Eddy look at the role of community colleges in social mobility. They illustrate that community colleges have played a historical role in providing higher education access to underrepresented groups. Education at community colleges is far less expensive, the colleges are often close to the homes of students, and admission is much more open. Although community colleges are often underperforming when it comes to completion of college, they have proven to be a path for upward mobility for those enrolled.

This is why community college education has gained more and more attention by politics as well. In his last year in office, President Obama advocated for free community college education, as have other progressive politicians like Bernie Sanders (Hudson 2015, Sanders 2019). There are even some examples of states that have introduced free college programs or explored the impact with experimental programs. Interestingly, the Republican stronghold Tennessee introduced a 2-year free community or technical college program. Since 2014, this program called the Tennessee Promise has been offering all high-school graduates a free two-year program, regardless of their income. New York, Oregon, or Rhode Island have since experimented with similar programs but have not gone as far as Tennessee. In a state that does not champion progressive ideas or government welfare programs on any issue, the program was presented as an economic growth program rather than just ‘another entitlement program,’ which made it acceptable for conservative politicians. Since its beginnings, the program has become so popular that it was even expanded to include adults who do not already have college credentials. Thousands of people have since enrolled in the programs. This example of Tennessee shows that, if framed right, bipartisan education reform is possible, even in times of political polarization (Wermund 2019).

In the presidential candidate race of the Democratic Party for 2020, student loan debt and free college education have become some of the most prominent issues. However, the discussion has somewhat moved away from community colleges to 4-year college education. Critics see this as problematic because it could mean a hand-out to upper middle-class families (Leonhardt 2019) rather than helping lower-income households, who would benefit more from a 2-year community college education. These students are not likely to attend a full 4-year college program, and most likely do not need to if they want to study a more practical profession. Strengthening the community college programs throughout the country in this way could have profound positive effects for low- or lower-middle-class families who want to pursue education beyond the high-school level. It could also be a way to increase access to life-long learning opportunities for adults who are interested in new professional programs. With technological progress moving ahead quickly, it is crucial to give more Americans the chance to improve their educational attainment and to prepare for the demands of 21st century jobs – community colleges can play a major part in this.  

Natalie Rauscher is currently pursuing her PhD at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies where she is also working as a research assiociate. Her dissertation looks at political and public discourse around the topics of the future of work and automation in the U.S. She is also interested in social media and social movements. She is a founding member of the HCA Graduate Blog.

Get in touch on Twitter!


Chetty, Raj, David Grusky, Maximilian Hell, Nathaniel Hendren, Robert Manduca, and Jimmy Narang. 2016. The Fading American Dream: Trends in Absolute Income Mobility since 1940. In NBER Working Paper Series. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Hudson, David. 2015. “The President Proposes to Make Community College Free for Responsible Students for 2 Years.” accessed Nov 29, 2019.

Leonhardt, David. 2016. “The American Dream, Quantified at Last.” The New York Times, accessed May 31, 2019.

Leonhardt, David. 2019. “Free College, the Best Version.” The New York Time, accessed Nov 29, 2019.

Romano, Richard M. and Pamela L. Eddy. 2017. “Community Colleges and Social Mobility.”  Change:55-62.

Sanders, Bernie. 2019. “Bernie Sanders on Education.” accessed Nov 29, 2019.

Wermund, Benjamin. 2019. “The red state that loves free college.” Politico, accessed Nov 29, 2019.

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