NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


March 31, 2008

Something is holding back lower-income Americans from going to college, says Brink Lindsey, vice president for research at the Cato Institute.  It's not that there aren't major incentives for them to go.  In fact, the college wage premium -- the difference between the average wages of college grads and those of high school grads has climbed to around 85 percent, up from less than 50 percent in 1980.

If more money isn't the answer, what does have an impact?  In a word: culture. Everything we know about high performance in all fields of endeavor tells us that, while natural talent is a plus, there is no substitute for long hours of preparation and hard work, explains Lindsey.

Child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley tested the effect of class on the differences in how parents interact with their young children.  They were able to document dramatic differences in the intensity and nature of the verbal stimulation the kids were getting:

  • Professional parents directed an average of 487 "utterances" per hour toward their children, as compared to 301 for working class parents and only 176 for welfare parents.
  • Among professional parents, the ratio of encouraging to discouraging utterances was six to one; for working-class parents, the ratio slipped to two to one; and welfare parents made two discouraging utterances for every encouraging one.
  • By the time the children in the study were around three years old, the ones from professional families had average vocabularies of 1,116 words; the working-class ones averaged 749; the welfare kids, 525.

Once kids reach school age, the growing influence of peer groups reinforces the early patterns established at home.  College-educated professional parents make sure their kids are in college-bound peer groups, while working-class and underclass kids tend to gravitate toward others like them.  Consequently, children on either side of the class divide grow up with very different attitudes about the importance of school achievement -- which leads to different expectations about future life plans and different self-conceptions in relation to larger society, says Lindsey.

Source: Brink Lindsey, "Culture of Success," New Republic, March 12, 2008.

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