The Upward Mobility Problem

Most Americans earn less than their parents did. Can community colleges bridge the gap?

Photograph of Gary Jones standing in front of a tractor trailer truck

Gary Jones with the truck he learned to operate at East Mississippi Community CollegePhotograph by Matthew G. Wood

 “When I started, I couldn’t even drive a stick, and now I’m shifting a ten-speed,” says Gary Jones with the sort of smile you hear before you see it. From eight in the morning to about four in the afternoon, the 31-year-old Jones is on the road, training for his Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) at East Mississippi Community College (EMCC). He spent this particular afternoon driving a semi-truck on the foggy highways connecting Starkville, West Point, and his native Columbus—a group of three towns in northeast Mississippi known as the Golden Triangle region. Maybe Jones couldn’t drive a stick-shift a few weeks ago, but now he can parallel park a big rig longer than a bowling lane.

Jones dropped out of high school to take care of his disabled mother and younger siblings. His mom required round-the-clock care, which meant he didn’t have the time to work a steady job. “That’s why I ended up selling drugs and taking the wrong direction,” he says. “We had to take care of her, and I was trying to help my little brother and sister, help them stay in school.” Jones was eventually arrested and went to prison for five years, during which time his mother passed away. He knew his criminal history could be a barrier to employment and didn’t want his education to be another one, so just a few weeks after his release, he enrolled in the Mississippi Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (MIBEST) program at EMCC. He says, “I really owed it to my mama, because she stayed in my ear about going to school and getting my GED and trying to do the right thing.”

As part of MIBEST, a Mississippi Community College Board program that seeks to move low-wage and non-traditional students into higher-wage positions, Jones completed a GED and workforce credential concurrently (in his case, the CDL). Once he’s a certified trucker, he can expect a starting income of about $60,000, and maybe even more, as the United States expects to be short about 180,000 drivers by 2030. Beyond the numbers, though, Jones is just excited to be on the road. “I’ve been in prison for five years. I want to travel!” he laughs. “And I know it’s gonna make me some money, too.”

The upward trajectory of Jones’s life is the stuff of American dreams. Thanks to counselors and teachers at EMCC, his family members cheering him on, and Jones’s resolution “not to go back to the life I came from,” he says now he’s “living right, doing the right thing, and making honest money.” He was dealt a bad hand and made something good out of it. But for many Americans who lack the support and information Jones had, that can feel almost impossible.

Parsing out the Problem

A child in the 1940s had about an 8 percent chance of going to four-year college—but a 90 percent chance of earning more as an adult than his parents did. A child born today, however, has about a 40 percent chance of attending college, and a less than 50 percent chance of out-earning his parents, according to research by Ackman professor of public economics Raj Chetty. Now, only one-third of Americans believe that the current generation of children will grow up to be better off than their parents. As Rachel Lipson, director of Harvard’s new Project on Workforce, puts it, “There is a long-running trend going on in this country where the idea that every generation is going to be better off than the last is just no longer the case. We’re hitting a block in the road.”

Project on Workforce team, from left: Joseph Fuller, Robert Schwartz, Rachel Lipson, Peter Blair, and David Deming 
Photograph by Jim Harrison

The number of Americans attending four-year college continues to rise—and yet, countries such as Finland and Denmark send fewer students to their college-equivalents and exhibit higher rates of economic mobility than the United States. Attending four-year college is treated as the “north star or the metric of success” in this country, Lipson says, “because it’s viewed as the pathway to the American dream, that ladder to economic opportunity and a good job.” However, only 16 percent of Americans believe that a bachelor’s degree prepares students very well for a good job in today’s economy, and as of last year, only 48 percent of high schoolers said they planned to attend four-year college. In fact, one-third of them said that, if society considered it as valuable as a four-year degree, they would pursue a career or technical education—shorter, vocation-specific programs, often offered at community colleges and geared toward immediate employment.

Faith in four-year college as the path to success is waning, and researchers, policymakers, and students alike are asking: are there other ways to build a good life? At least in the short term, could providing more support to other postsecondary options, especially community colleges, move more lower- and middle-class Americans into good livelihoods? And what needs to change so that trajectories like Gary Jones’s become standard, rather than exceptional?


Thirteen-hundred miles from where Jones wrangles 18-wheelers at EMCC, members of the freshly minted Project on Workforce are collaborating in Cambridge to figure out America’s upward-mobility problem. A joint effort among the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), Business School (HBS), and Graduate School of Education (HGSE), it aims to study, build, and scale up postsecondary pathways, beyond just the traditional four-year college route, that will lead more Americans into good jobs. To that end, the project applies expertise across management, public policy, and education to form a comprehensive view of challenges facing the workforce—and possible solutions.

The seeds for the project were planted about a decade ago during conversations between professor of management practice (and former CEO of Monitor Consulting, now Monitor Deloitte) Joseph Fuller, and his mentor, professor emeritus of practice in educational policy and administration (and former high-school principal) Robert Schwartz. They saw unemployment and wage stagnation as byproducts of a supply-and-demand imbalance: the American education system wasn’t supplying students equipped with the skills employers were demanding. Academics and policymakers tend to tinker with the supply side of the equation, but Schwartz says, to move people into great livelihoods, “you really want to start with employers and work backward” from their demand-side requirements when designing courses and education pathways.

Hoping to shape those kinds of pathways, in 2019, the pair enlisted Rachel Lipson ’12, M.B.A.-M.P.P. ’18, as director and looped in faculty co-directors HKS’s David Deming, Isabelle and Scott Black professor of political economy, and HGSE’s Peter Q. Blair, assistant professor of education, who first learned about economics selling produce at the Nassau Straw Market (in the Bahamas), to lead the new Project on Workforce.

The project is both research- and impact-based. The team is building a body of research about America’s current paths from education to employment, focusing particularly on low- and middle-wage workers and what can be done to smooth their transitions. But the goal is to put this research into action, collaborating with local and national organizations to broaden workers’ employment pathways regardless of their degree statuses. In response to the pandemic, they partnered with 25 public and nonprofit organizations (including Massachusetts’s public job center network) to build SkillBase, an aggregate of free online trainings for job seekers in such subjects as resumé writing and English business communication. They also direct some of their activities inward, toward Harvard, to build a generation of leaders more attuned to the challenges workers face. One of the project’s most popular Harvard-facing events is its study group, which brings students from across the University together to brainstorm how to build a more inclusive future of work. In all its efforts, Lipson says the project works to “bridge research and real-world practice to break down some of the silos that have traditionally existed among educational institutions, employers, communities, and policymakers” on workforce issues.

By turning more attention to routes outside traditional four-year college, the project aims, according to its mission statement, to “chart the course for a postsecondary system of the future that creates more and better pathways to economic mobility.” And in this work, its leaders hope to boost economic opportunity in the United States and, ultimately, make stories like Jones’s the standard.

Employing Talented “STARs”

“Any system is perfectly configured to generate the outcomes it generates,” Fuller sometimes says to his puzzled M.B.A. students. It sounds like something the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland might say between puffs of hookah—but what he means is that results are only as good as the system generating them. “And our system generates unacceptable outcomes for a significant percentage of the population of aspiring workers,” he says, “so the notion that we’re going to fine-tune it to do a lot better just doesn’t bear a logic test.”

The system, or the standard-issue American pathway to a good living, goes something like this, according to Fuller. During K-12 education, students get only limited exposure to the workplace or the skills they’ll need to get there—and then are told that they need to go to a four-year college to have a good life. But only about 40 percent of high-schoolers go on to four-year college, including just 19 percent of Hispanic students, 26 percent of black students, and 11 percent of America’s lowest-income students. The majority head straight into a job market where, particularly since the Great Recession, a bachelor’s degree serves as the gatekeeper for about two-thirds of new jobs—and most of the best-paying ones.

Encouraging students to go to four-year college is not a bad thing (the student-debt problem aside), but the advice is rooted in a limited worldview, Fuller says. “One of the things that plagues the system is most people who shape policies, who work in the Capitol and in think tanks at Harvard, they all went to college. Their kids went to college. Their kids’ friends went to college.” He adds, “You get in that surround, and you can be empathetic to a kid of color or a high-school dropout, but you don’t know any of them.”

Four-year college as the path to success factors into United States policymaking as well. Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which stipulates guidelines for federal student loans and grants, describes education through the lens of four-year college. Students cannot take out loans for programs comprising fewer than 100 credit hours, courses must be taught by an accredited institution, and funds are distributed on the academic calendar, making it difficult for working learners to take classes over the summer, for instance. Fuller says, “Some of this stuff is so goofy you can’t make it up.”

Beyond policy, focusing almost exclusively on four-year programs has social ramifications as well. The minority of Americans who went to college espouse a narrative to the majority that can have the unintentional effect, he says, “of telling the kids who aren’t going to go to [four-year] college, ‘Well, you’re a loser.’”

Peter Blair, who also serves as a faculty research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), says that the U.S. job market needs to tap into the talent of “STARs”—individuals “skilled through alternative routes” outside traditional four-year college. One of Blair’s NBER working papers found that 30 million American workers without four-year college degrees have the skills to move into jobs that pay an average of 70 percent morethan their current earnings. Sought-after capabilities—ranging from quantitative skills to in-demand “soft skills” such as problem solving and teamwork—can be cultivated in many places other than four-year colleges, such as in high-stress service-industry jobs, working as a caregiver, or juggling full-time employment with going back to school for a GED.

STARs are kept out of work that would suit them because of what Fuller calls “degree inflation.” Now, jobs require B.A.s for positions that, years ago, did not. For example, he found that 67 percent of job postings for new production supervisors in 2015 included bachelor’s degree requirements, even though only 16 percent of people then working as production supervisors had one.

Since people of color are far less likely to have a four-year education, “Nonessential degree requirements aren’t race-neutral,” wrote Blair in a June 2020 Wall Street Journal op-ed. Many companies are earnestly trying to diversify their workforces, but they’re going to fall short if they continue to have four-year degree requirements. It’s a bad deal for both employers, who are missing out on a group of highly skilled individuals, and STARs, who know they’re capable of the job. Blair estimates that 16 million STARs have the skills for high-wage work—but 11 million are currently underemployed in low- and middle-wage jobs.

Some hiring managers are starting to look past pedigree, according to Fuller’s recent research. Between 2017 and 2019, 31 percent of listings for high-wage jobs and 46 percent of middle-wage jobs lowered their degree requirements. Fuller estimates that of those degree resets, 63 percent are permanent adjustments. And, as pandemic-related labor shortages continue, employers have even more reason to re-evaluate and reverse their biases toward four-year degrees.

"You can get lost very easily if you drop off the four-year college path."

“We have so many jobs that may demand some kind of postsecondary credential but do not require a traditional four-year bachelor’s degree,” Lipson says, including careers such as registered nurse, dental hygienist, and electrician, all of which provide family-sustaining incomes and promotion opportunities. But according to Lipson, “We haven’t made the investment into building an ecosystem where people can access [those types of jobs] more easily.” She adds, “It’s been a problem in the U.S. that you can get lost very easily if you drop off the four-year college path.” If economic success is defined in binary terms, where someone either receives a four-year degree or not, people without a degree can be left wondering what success looks like for them.

As the United States looks to boost employment outcomes, the Project on Workforce members suggest directing more attention to some of the country’s most ubiquitous engines of economic mobility: community colleges. Expanding access to quality bachelor’s degree programs remains important, but Schwartz says we must also bolster community colleges because, “If we’re waiting around for four-year colleges and universities to solve the problem of stalled mobility for poor kids, it’s going to be a very, very, very long wait.”

“Podunk,” Mississippi

“A lot of individuals who are not from here are routinely baffled by the level of skill and expertise that exists in northeastern ‘Podunk,’ Mississippi,” says Macaulay Whitaker, from her office in Columbus, about 20 minutes from EMCC, where Jones takes his truck-driving courses. 36-year-old Whitaker is chief operating officer of the Golden Triangle Development LINK (GTR LINK), a nonprofit that boosts economic opportunities and strengthens college-to-career pathways for Mississippians in the Golden Triangle region (tri-county population: 128,000).

Fabian Ryan operating machinery at PACCAR's engine plant
Photograph by Matthew Wood

Textiles, toys, and tubing alike once flowed from the region’s factories, but by the early 2000s, many employers automated or outsourced their labor and closed their local operations. In one decade, the GTR lost 40 percent of its manufacturing jobs. Its unemployment rate rose to about 15 percent in 2007, well above the national average, while wages remained much lower. On the state level, Mississippi has the lowest state workforce participation rate in the country, with only 53 percent of working-age adults employed or actively seeking employment, and a below-average high-school graduation rate. Facing these grim realities, GTR LINK sought to improve opportunities by attracting major advanced manufacturing and aerospace employers to the region and coordinating with local educational institutions to cultivate a skilled workforce. By virtue of the region’s small population, GTR LINK is operating on a limited scale, but so far its tactics are working. Between its inception in 2003 and 2016, it’s brought nearly $6 billion in investments to the region and created about 6,000 family-sustaining jobs.

Whitaker is the first to admit that the GTR is still far from perfect, but in 2016, Fuller and his colleague William Kerr, D’Arbeloff-Class of 1955 professor of business administration, were impressed enough that they wrote an HBS case study on the ways GTR LINK improved upward mobility. They found that one way the program attracted and retained new employers was by generating a workforce with skills matching the companies’ open positions. Local community colleges coordinated with employers and developed curricula around their skill needs, such as precision measurement and blueprint reading, and developed internship programs for students—ensuring both that the employers had the employees they needed, and that Mississippians who may otherwise have been un- or underemployed had a clear path to good jobs.

Six years after HBS studied the GTR’s pipelines, community-college students like Fabian Ryan still benefit from them. Ryan works full-time as a janitor at a large steel mill during the day, and takes EMCC classes for his associate’s degree in precision manufacturing and machinery at night.

“There are some rough points and some easy points,” he says of balancing his steel-mill job with school. “Hard labor makes you really, really tired.” When not at work or in one of EMCC’s hands-on machinery classrooms, Ryan is completing an EMCC-facilitated internship at PACCAR trucks, one of the manufacturers that GTR LINK attracted to the region. He spends a few hours there each day learning what goes into building truck engines that weigh more than compact cars. It’s a hypnotizing dance between intricate, high-tech machines. Ryan says, “Watching the spindles cut through some really tough metal—it’s amazing.”

This kind of work-based learning is what makes a workforce pipeline function, Fuller says. By integrating local employer needs into its curriculum—in EMCC’s case, to the point of using the employers’ machines in the classroom—community colleges set students up for smoother transitions into a career. It’s very likely that, after his internship, Ryan will be hired at PACCAR. “I think I have a good foot in the door,” he says. He hopes to work there for the next few years and, at some point, buy a house with his fiancée. “I can’t really explain it in words,” he says, of how his life is different after enrolling at EMCC. “It’s definitely better than it was.”

Community Centers, Nationwide

EMCC is far from the only community college preparing students for good jobs with local employers. Virtually every community college has workforce development programs that equip students with the tools they need to succeed in the workplace.

Community colleges have an advantage over traditional four-year institutions because they are just what they sound like: colleges for a specific community. “They’re not just colleges,” says Harvard’s David Deming. “They’re community centers. People play on their fields, they’re the place where local political candidates might hold their debate.” They’re the one place where a student can get an associate’s degree in preparation for a four-year college and a working learner can get certified quickly in a sought-after skill. Deming says it would be a mistake to think of community colleges, and educational institutions in general, as “only places where people learn how to be workers. That said, it’s certainly one part of the job.”

Schwartz says “community colleges are where the infrastructure is” to equip students with work-ready skills. As community hubs, they’re well-positioned to facilitate job placements and work-based learning opportunities with local employers, as EMCC has. They also serve a cohort that’s especially unlikely to move up the income ladder— and nearly nonexistent at elite four-year institutions. Whether she’s at EMCC or Los Angeles City College, the average community college student is in her mid-20s, low-income, a working learner, and maybe a caregiver to a dependent. Fuller says that statistically, people are in “big trouble” if by 25 they have neither a B.A. nor a full-time job in a field with promotion potential (think: computer programming versus waitressing). After the age of 25, someone’s odds of rising out of low-wage jobs become progressively slimmer. But by providing education and workforce training, community colleges equip these adults for upwardly mobile jobs with family-sustaining wages.

"I will build my empire from the rocks that were thrown at my face."

And they’re not just doing that in rural, manufacturing-heavy regions like the GTR; community colleges are improving upward mobility even in metropolitan, high-tech Boston, and across the river in Cambridge where 80 percent of adults have bachelor’s degrees. Boston’s Bunker Hill Community College (BHCC) builds college-to-career pipelines around the city, customizing training programs with local companies like Wayfair and Bank of America, and preparing students left out of the four-year-college pipeline for good jobs.

From left: BHCC’s Sabrina Soltani and Kristen McKenna
Photograph by Stu Rosner

BHCC has been “life-changing” for students like 33-year-old Sabrina Soltani, who five years ago was living in a shelter in Springfield, Massachusetts, with her infant son Zeendean. “We were all alone with nothing to fall back on,” she says, but after two years in the shelter, Soltani moved to Boston and enrolled at BHCC where, in addition to her associate’s degree in computer science, she earned industry-recognized information-technology (IT) certifications in Cisco, Amazon Web Services, and Google. Now, Soltani says she can provide her son with “everything he needs, everything I need,” and she plans to get her bachelor’s and master’s and become a software engineer in Silicon Valley. She says, “My mantra to myself, every morning when I wake up is, ‘I will build my empire from the rocks that were thrown at my face.’”

Funding Dreams

Community colleges provide life-changing opportunities for students like Soltani, but they do so on shoestring budgets. Finances got even tighter during the pandemic, as national community college enrollment dropped by about 15 percent for reasons still not entirely clear—likely some combination of remote-learning challenges, job loss, the childcare shortage, and other pandemic-induced setbacks. A loss of students meant a loss of revenue for community colleges, but even when money is available, grant stipulations make it difficult to deploy the funds where they are most needed, says BHCC dean of workforce and economic development Kristen McKenna. BHCC recently financed a new program that reskills workers displaced by the pandemic for in-demand jobs, such as those in healthcare or IT. The school considered applying for grants to underwrite it, but McKenna says it’s “just so cumbersome, and without [enough] staffing, it’s too much” to overcome funding obstacles while responding to an urgent community need.

Rachel Lipson notes that President Biden’s Build Back Better initiative, as originally proposed, included important wins for community-college students—including a 50 percent increase in annual spending on workforce development during the next five years. But even if those proposals are enacted, she says students need more “wraparound support”: funding for expenses that might prevent someone from completing her education, such as childcare, healthcare, and housing. “We have not paid enough attention to some of the other life challenges that can prevent someone from being able to continue in education,” Lipson says. “Sometimes things that may not seem like a huge amount of money—like an unexpected medical bill or car repair or rent increase—can become the dealbreaker for someone being able to achieve their dreams and the career path they want.” Zach Scruggs, executive director of 2nd Chance Mississippi (a nonprofit that provides wraparound support for Mississippi community college students) says that their learners are often “one flat tire away from dropping out.”

Right now, most wraparound support is provided through smaller, one-off projects like 2nd Chance, which “works with community colleges to fill the voids not otherwise addressed by public or other funding,” according to its founder Richard Scruggs. They give students money for gas and childcare, for instance, and when classes went remote during the pandemic, donated a library of laptops students could borrow. Since its founding a few years ago, 2nd Chance has helped 1,350 Mississippians stay in school, even though its average grant is only about $500 per student. “It’s a great example of a little money going a long way,” Zach Scruggs says. For student Shane Wiggins, who was intermittently homeless while finishing school, getting $120 from 2nd Chance to cover his GED testing fees made all the difference. Now, he’s getting his associate’s degree with plans to teach and perform music professionally. A $700 car repair meant that a welding student in Wesson, Mississippi could still get to campus, and for a student at Pearl River Community College, a new pair of glasses made it possible to succeed in class. Zach Scruggs says it can be “life-altering, to just have little things like that in the right place at the right time.” He adds, “Could federal money or state money easily do and take over what we’re doing? Absolutely...We hope that what we’re doing can serve as a template for that at some point in the future.”

If more students were able to stay in school, and that schooling led to a quality job, that might fill in some of the missing rungs in America’s upward-mobility ladder. Terri Clark, former dean of workforce and community development at Pearl River Community College, says, “There’s nothing sexy about adult workforce education. There just isn’t. But it is so very, very important. It’s transformational what an individual can experience by enrolling in a community college.”

“It’s tempting to only look at the Harvards of the world and to think as if we’re the only ones that have the answers,” said Peter Blair, who attended community college himself, at an April 2021 HGSE panel. “There’s a lot we do really well, but we are part of a broader ecosystem of educators. Each of these sectors of the educational market has an important role to play.” And in educating many low- and middle-class Americans, community colleges—not elite four-year institutions—do the bulk of the work.

This spring, Gary Jones will be a CDL-certified truck-driver, but he says he’s not planning to stop there. Truck-driving will be his long-term career, but he’s tempted to go back to school for something else, maybe welding, on the side. He’s not done taking classes or getting degrees. “I’m still trying to figure out what the next one is gonna be,” he says, “but there’s gonna be another one.”  

Staff writer Nancy Kathryn Walecki wrote about the Arnold Arboretum in the March-April issue.

Published in the print edition of the May-June 2022 issue under the  headline "Making It In America."


Read more articles by Nancy Walecki

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