Marriage as a Springboard to the Middle Class

Regular followers of Fordham know that, over the past few years, I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about “education for upward mobility,” starting with a series of posts on Deborah Meier’s Bridging Differences blog and culminating in last December’s conference on the subject. Now I’ve got a new essay in Education Next, “How Can Schools Address America’s Marriage Crisis?,” which touches on many of the issues that I’m afraid education reformers have tended (or opted) to overlook.

A consistent theme throughout this work is that we’re too myopically focused on college (and generally on the traditional four-year college degree) as the only route to upward mobility for America’s poor children. I’m ready to concede that it is a pretty darn good pathway, at least for students who actually complete a postsecondary credential. And many of you have helped me to understand that colleges don’t simply “bestow a credential on those most likely to succeed,” as I argued a week ago. There’s some pretty compelling evidence that the college experience itself adds real value, which partly explains the stronger life outcomes for graduates.

What I’m not ready to concede is the larger point: Our focus on college is still too narrow because it overlooks other critically important steps on the ladder to the middle class.

As I explain in Education Next, a more holistic approach would also take seriously what Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution call the “success sequence”: get at least a high school diploma, work full time, and wait till you are at least twenty-one and married before having children. They estimate that 98 percent of individuals who follow those three norms will not be poor, and almost three-quarters will be solidly middle class. On the flip side, three-quarters of young people who fail to follow any of those norms will be poor, and almost none will be middle class.

So let’s focus on the education part of that sequence—and yes, more education is better than less. But let’s not ignore the “work-full-time” and “don’t-have-children-too-young-or-out-of-wedlock” parts either.

What can schools do about those?

• Boost the employment prospects of disadvantaged youth via high-quality career and technical education programs
• Help their students develop “performance character”—particularly drive and prudence
• Offer a full suite of well-organized extracurricular activities (to help build those all-important non-cognitive skills and to keep kids off the streets)
• Most importantly, give their students a sense of hope and purpose

College is a great springboard to the middle class. So is saving parenthood until marriage. Let’s make sure we’re focused on both strategies instead of just one.

– Michael J. Petrilli

This first appeared on Flypaper.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College