There’s a standard American ideal: if you work hard and jump at opportunities when they come your way, you can be successful no matter where you come from. Horatio Alger’s rags to riches and respectability stories from the late 19th century tell the tale, with poor boys growing up on the streets who find success through a combination of pluck and luck. The modern version of this American myth tends to go something like this: work hard, get an education, and don’t expect anyone to make it easy. This ideal stands in stark contrast to the data, as Richard Reeves explained in an essay last year, Saving Horatio Alger. The chances of a young person born into a low-income family rising to the middle or top of the income distribution are extremely low in the US, and especially in the South. Even in some of the region’s most economically dynamic metros, low-wealth young people are not benefiting from job opportunities and prosperity.

Though the chances of climbing the income ladder go up significantly with a college degree:

There are significant variations in college attendance and completion by family income level. There’s a linear relationship between income and who goes to college; with each percentile increase in the family income distribution, the rate of college attendance increases the same amount.

College success is closely tied to the economic wellbeing of a young person’s family. Let’s imagine that a young person from a low-wealth family ends up in a well-resourced school system, despite the odds, and gets the preparation she needs to succeed academically in college. Her family can’t help her pay for college, but she applies, gets in, and is willing to work a job to pay her own way. She’s heard lots of stories about people who put themselves through school, so she figures she’ll be able to do it, even if it’s difficult. And she would…if she’d gone to school in 1985 instead of 2015. Here’s how the work-your-way-through-school math looks, according to NPR Edthen and now:

  • If you worked a minimum wage job in the early 1980s, you would have to work a part-time job year-round for 16 hours a week, or work a summer job for 9 hours a day, to pay for a year of tuition to a public four-year college of university, assuming you were also receiving the maximum Pell Grant.
  • Today, you would have to work 35 hours a week year round, or more than 20 hours a day in a summer job, to pay a year of four-year public tuition once you’ve received the maximum Pell grant.

Okay, so getting a job won’t help her much. She has three options: get a scholarship, work part-time and take longer to finish, or take out loans. Once again, the odds are against her. Scholarships are increasingly going to affluent students. Completion is much lower for part-time students (which is why many four-year public and community colleges push students to attend full-time), and it’s difficult to balance work and school schedules over time. She can take out loans, but student loan debt is ballooning and many young people struggle to pay it back. If she’s a part-time student or taking out loans, she has to delay starting a family and investing in her family’s future by doing things like owning a home and building wealth.

The costs of college are increasing dramatically, and public investment is declining. In Southern states, four-year tuition has spiked since 2008:

Tuition change

Source: CBPP

Some low-wealth students find a way to make it work, reinforcing that myth of luck and pluck. But according to the data, far too many can’t. And getting more people college degrees won’t fix inequality: the racial wealth gap, for example, persists at all levels of education and income. That chart that showed the positive effect of a college degree on mobility also showed that even a college degree is not enough to overcome the influence of family income on a child’s future income. Still, as long as college degrees are so important for individual economic success, disparities in access will serve to reinforce inequality, as the Report of the Truman Commission on Higher Education stated in 1947:

We have proclaimed our faith in education as a means of equalizing the conditions of men. But there is grave danger that our present policy will make it an instrument for creating the very inequalities it was designed to prevent. If the ladder of educational opportunity rises high at the doors of some youth and scarcely rises at all at the doors of others, while at the same time formal education is made a prerequisite to occupational and social advance, then education may become the means, not of eliminating race and class distinctions, but of deepening and solidifying them.

Economic mobility—the idea that your success is not dependent on your situation at birth—is core to our vision of America. While it’s always been a myth (particularly for women and people of color), we do know of ways to make mobility more realistic. And while the systems have been built for the success of only a few, we should rebuild them to work for everyone. We need a strong infrastructure of opportunity that ties together the systems and supports that boost young people toward educational and economic success regardless of where they are starting from. As leaders in Durham, Greenville, and across the South are discovering, that infrastructure does more than benefit low-wealth young people: it’s good for our communities and our economy.