Educational Inequality and the Ballot Booth

As election time approaches, voters are lukewarm on the candidates. While this story is familiar, a greater crisis should command our attention: class biases in elections. In 2008, the wealthiest 1% of the US voted at a 99 percent participation rate (pg. 3). For those around median income, the number hovered at about 65 percent. A similar divide exists with voters who graduated college versus those who only completed high school. The former voted at just over 70 percent participation while the latter struggled to break 50 percent. If we hope to address this problem and strive for a truly representative democracy, we must observe the role income plays in education and voting.

The cyclical nature of poverty and education is well understood; children from lower income backgrounds perform worse on standardized tests than their affluent peers. Median earnings rise with education. Escape from poverty would seemingly be found in our universities. But because educational quality suffers in impoverished areas, and because lower-income students underperform on college-placement tests, this escape becomes an ever-distant dream. To break the cycle of poverty and to achieve a more democratic system, we must heed the rallying cry of the youth and favor educational equality. We must push for tuition free public universities so that all students can have meaningful choices in their futures.

Remove Financial Barriers to Education

Cost is an obstacle to greater college graduation rates. Students drop out largely due to the struggles of working to support themselves while in school. In other words, students cannot invest in their education. Even among those who do graduate, their investments are hardly maturing. It takes more than six years for more than one-third of public university graduates to earn an annual income of $25,000.

One solution offered is a promise of “debt-free” college education. Under this plan, students graduate owing nothing towards tuition. The methods proposed to ensure this vary, but all consider a student’s familial income and expected family contribution (EFC) to tuition. Out of the gate, this is a non-starter.

The Department of Education (DOE) currently uses familial income to assess a student’s EFC. Based on EFC, the DOE then determines a student’s eligibility for tuition assistance. While this sounds like a good practice, it has many shortcomings. For example, students who have no family support are still considered to have an EFC. While a student may petition FAFSA for a discretionary override, the student must not only be aware of this option but also articulate their “unusual circumstances” convincingly. Suffice to say, this presents additional challenges to fairly funding education.

Those proposing “debt-free” college also suggest that students should “work some hours” to cover a portion of their tuition. However, what this would amount to is a college workforce made up primarily of the most disadvantaged. A student from a wealthy and supportive family would not need to work to graduate “debt-free.” Requiring disadvantaged students to work would not further the goal of creating “debt-free” graduates considering that holding a job concurrent with academic labor promotes higher dropout rates. Instead, we should advocate for educational equality where any student, regardless of income, can attend a public university at no cost and with no obligation.

Class Bias Impedes Democracy

The US ideal of a truly representative democracy is a mirage. We create this attractive image of parity in elections but when we move closer to inspect it, that image disappears. If the impoverished voted at the same rate as the wealthy, we would see greater support for unions, educational spending and government provided health care.

The question then becomes why this great underclass does not participate. A recurring reason is electoral futility. Forty percent of non-voters do not believe that their vote would impact the system. Clearly, the wealthy elites disagree. The difference is not merely one of feelings; there is “substantial evidence” that “government represents voters more than nonvoters.” In the US, that means that government represents the rich at the expense of the poor.

This electoral inaction arises not from any one interaction with the system but instead from the system as a whole. With wages decreasing in comparison to productivity and college education now a financial albatross, the cycle of poverty and non-representation is very real and seems poised to grow. That is, it will grow unless we take tangible steps through educational equality that address this intersection of multiple marginalizations.