Thomas Piketty on inequality in education

In the present-day USA, young people are told they have no economic future unless they have college educations.  Unless their parents are relatively affluent, the only way they can afford tuition is to go into debt—debt that literally can follow them all their lives.

Many of the top jobs in management, academia and government are only open to graduates of prestigious colleges.  So the educational system reinforces inequality.

Thomas Piketty

Thomas Piketty, in his new book Capital and Ideology, shows that this pattern exists across the Western world, including his native France.

It wasn’t always this way, he noted.  During the decades following the Second World War, the progressive and socialist political parties opened up higher education to working people in a way that hadn’t been done before.

Many of the beneficiaries of these programs became leaders of the moderately progressive and socialist parties.  They became what Piketty called the Brahmin Left, an educational elite, which, according to him, lost touch with the wage earners without college degrees.  He said in an interview:

If you look at education policies, in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, there was a relatively egalitarian platform of investing in primary and secondary education for all and bringing everyone to the end of secondary school. Gradually, in the 1980s and 1990s there was the rise of higher education, but this egalitarian platform has been abandoned in some cases.

There is a lot of hypocrisy in terms of access to universities. I show in the book that if you look at a country like the United States, there is data now available on the relationship between parental income and access to education that shows if your parents are poor, you still have a 25% chance to enter higher education, but when your parents are rich, you have a 95% chance.

Actually, this is understating the impact on equality of opportunity because of course the universities that those with rich parents have access to are not the same as the universities that those with poor parents have access to.

If you look at the amount of education investment, you find that even in a supposedly more egalitarian public system like France, the picture is unequal.

I have looked at data on all [French] students who finished their education in 2018 and identified the total public education investment they received throughout their period in education from primary school to secondary school and further education.

On average, public education investment has been about 120,000 euros, but it goes from 60-70,000 euros up to 250-300,000 euros.

Those at the bottom are basically the people who leave school at the age of 17 or 18, and those at the top are those who receive very privileged forms of higher education, while in the middle you have people who are in the basic university system and don’t receive much investment.

Again, you can see how much hypocrisy there is in this system because you invest 200,000 more euros for the people at the top than you do for the people at the bottom.

Of course, this is not parental income, it is just related to the people who do the most expensive studies, and some of them sometimes come from lower income backgrounds.

But as you know, on average there is a correlation with parental income, so in the end public investment will tend to amplify initial inequalities.  I previously mentioned the idea of an inheritance for all, well here you have a kind of double inheritance for some people who receive 200,000 euros extra.

Social democratic parties have been unable or unwilling to propose targets in terms of educational justice that are convincing enough.  It’s more complicated to define educational justice in an era when you have higher education than in an era where the objective was just to bring everybody to the end of primary and then secondary education.

It’s not that the world stayed the same and that social democratic parties just abandoned redistribution.  The world changed, there were new challenges, and social democratic parties were unable or unwilling to update their platform.

But the story I tell is not only about education, it’s also about redistribution in general, progressive taxation, financial deregulation and many other topics.

Source: Thomas Piketty | Brave New Europe

Piketty is basically right, in my opinion, and advocates a lot of things I agree with, such as not only equalizing spending in rich and poor communities, but giving extra pay to teachers in disadvantaged communities.

He also favors affirmative action programs, based on income, that would give people from all economic levels equal access to college education.  One way of doing this would be to have a lottery for college admissions for everyone who meets some minimum standard.

The problem with this is that university education has other purposes besides providing a boost to individual careers. The study of physics or medicine qualifies the students to serve society, and it is to the benefit of society that the students be the ones who most likely to be the best physicists or physicians.

The benefit of affirmative action is to discover people with aptitude who otherwise would be overlooked.  And, of course, talented people who are poorly prepared for advanced study should be given special help to catch up.

But you want physicists to be chosen from the pool of those with the best aptitude for physics, just as you want plumbers to be chose from the pool of those with the best aptitude for plumbing.

Affirmative action does not reduce inequality.  It merely diversifies the group that enjoys the fruits of inequality.  [Added Later]

The key part of the problem, which is the role of elite universities as gatekeepers to power and prestige.

Herbert Hoover pointed out once eight of the top 12 federal officials in the Coolidge administration—the President, Vice-President and 10 Cabinet officers—had begun life as manual laborers.  This included Secretary of Commerce Hoover.

Nowadays a college degree is virtually necessary not only for a high-level government post, but for any kind of professional or managerial position.

This means that, in the USA at least, the colleges and universities are filled with people with little interest in learning, but only in the good marks and the degree that are the necessary credentials to a decent future.

The world is full of intelligent, capable people who don’t have an aptitude for classroom study, and they should be allowed to take their own path to learning.

My nephew felt himself a failure because he couldn’t succeed in college.  He enlisted in the U.S. Navy and manifested skills and leadership qualities he had never shown before.  There should be different routes to success, not just one.

A just society should not require a credential to be worthy of a decent life.  Any honest, diligent person who makes what positive contribution to society that he or she can should have a decent life.

Piketty has a lot of other ideas, some vague, some possibly impractical, but all good as starting points for discussion.  But the great value of Capital and Ideology is his research, which spans many nations, many periods of history and many academic disciplines.  You can click on the Capital and Ideology tags for more of my posts about his recent book.


Le blog de Thomas Piketty.  In English.

Thomas Piketty – “The Current Economic System Is Not working When It Comes to Solving Inequality”, an interview for Brave New Europe.

Education and Property for All: Thomas Piketty on Capital and Ideology, an interview for Tocqueville21.

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