If you’re in school or responsible for someone in school, this is a tough time of year. Spring break is over, but there’s still a stretch of school days left—and depending on where you or your school-goer is in the education pipeline, those days could be full of end-of-grade tests, final exams, or anxiety about what comes after graduation, whether that’s more school or beginning a new career. Many of these assessment points and new beginnings have a significant influence on long-term educational and economic outcomes. (Is this making you any less anxious? Sorry. At least the sun is out and the days are longer!)

Your starting point as a child greatly impacts your chances of getting ahead as an adult in the US, and low-income children in the South are less likely to be middle- or high-income as adults than elsewhere. Educational attainment remains a key determinant of who is employed and who is not, and who earns a good living and who does not. In the South, the median income for

  • high school graduates is $26,500
  • people with some college, $32,299
  • four-year graduates, $48,317.

Our region can’t build an economic mobility strategy that doesn’t include education, and here’s why: your chances of moving up the income ladder are significantly different, depending on your educational attainment. These data from Pew Charitable Trust make it clear:

Pew chart

Source: The Pew Charitable Trusts. Full report available here.

Only 10 percent of children born in the bottom quintile who graduate from college remain in that quintile as adults, so education does give you some upward momentum. However, even with a college degree, almost 40 percent of those who start in the bottom quintile move up just one rung. Without that degree, it’s even more dire: 47 percent of children born on the bottom rung remain there if they don’t earn a credential.

While  college gives you a boost toward better economic outcomes, it’s not the only factor when it comes to secure employment. Race is another factor, as Janelle Jones and John Schmitt detail in the Center for Economic and Policy Research report, A College Degree is No Guarantee. In 2013 (the most recent full year of data available), the unemployment rate for college graduates between the ages of 22 and 27 was 5.6 percent. For black college graduates in that same age range, the rate was 12.4 percent. At the same time, 55.9 percent of employed black recent college graduates were underemployed (defined by the authors as “working in an occupation that typically does not require a four-year college degree”); even before the Great Recession (in 2007) this figure was 45 percent:

CEPR chart

Source: Center for Economic and Policy Research. Full report available here.

As Jones and Schmitt soberly summarize: “In part, these outcomes reflect the disproportionate negative effect of economic downturns on young workers and, in part, they reflect ongoing racial discrimination in the labor market. A college degree blunts both these effects [unemployment and underemployment] relative to young black workers without a degree, but college is not a guarantee against either set of forces.”

Pair these racial disparities with public disinvestment in education systems, and the people in lower quintiles won’t just be stuck there—they’ll be moving backwards. An education agenda to address these challenges has multiple components: giving children a strong start with pre-kindergarten enrichment; strengthening middle schools; continuing and expanding the movement to connect high schools and community colleges; restraining tuition creep and enlarging need-based financial aid; and enhancing academic and support services to boost completion rates in degree programs—while acknowledging and addressing patterns of exclusion and segregation that create racial and ethnic disparities in social and economic outcomes. Spring may be in the air, but there’s no summer vacation from these challenges if we want to improve economic security for all Southerners.