Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Higher Education: Gateway to the American Dream or Perpetuation of Inequality?

Suzanne Mettler has written a new book, Degress of Inequality: How Higher Education Politics Sabotaged the American Dream.  She argues that our higher education system, rather than creating a opportunity for the disadvantaged or leveling the field somewhat, skews it further.  Her promotion materials summarize the book as follows:

America’s higher education system is failing its students. In the space of a generation, we have gone from being the best-educated society in the world to one surpassed by eleven other nations in college graduation rates. Higher education is evolving into a caste system with separate and unequal tiers that take in students from different socio-economic backgrounds and leave them more unequal than when they first enrolled.

Until the 1970s, the United States had a proud history of promoting higher education for its citizens. The Morrill Act, the G.I. Bill and Pell Grants enabled Americans from across the income spectrum to attend college and the nation led the world in the percentage of young adults with baccalaureate degrees. Yet since 1980, progress has stalled. Young adults from low to middle income families are not much more likely to graduate from college than four decades ago. When less advantaged students do attend, they are largely sequestered into inferior and often profit-driven institutions, from which many emerge without degrees—and shouldering crushing levels of debt.

In Degrees of Inequality, acclaimed political scientist Suzanne Mettler explains why the system has gone so horribly wrong and why the American Dream is increasingly out of reach for so many. In her eye-opening account, she illuminates how political partisanship has overshadowed America’s commitment to equal access to higher education. As politicians capitulate to corporate interests, owners of for-profit colleges benefit, but for far too many students, higher education leaves them with little besides crippling student loan debt. Meanwhile, the nation’s public universities have shifted the burden of rising costs onto students. In an era when a college degree is more linked than ever before to individual—and societal—well-being, these pressures conspire to make it increasingly difficult for students to stay in school long enough to graduate.

By abandoning their commitment to students, politicians are imperiling our highest ideals as a nation. Degrees of Inequality offers an impassioned call to reform a higher education system that has come to exacerbate, rather than mitigate, socioeconomic inequality in America.

For those of us teaching in higher education, the book will likely ring painfully true.  The most obvious problem in law school, for instance, is the almost complete disappearance of need based aid.  Those students least in need of aid more frequently go to law school for free, or near free, and tend to land higher paying jobs upon graduation. For these students, law school is an extremely great deal.  Those students more in need get almost nothing and often secure lower paying jobs.  None of this is to say that students receiving scholarships have not earned them, nor that law school fails to deliver substantial benefits to high need students.  My only point is that students who "need" help rarely get it in law school today.  

Aaron Taylor has provided some great posts on these issues here and here.

For an interview with Mettler, see here.


Higher education | Permalink


I read Mettler's book a few weeks ago. It is mostly solid, though I was disappointed to see that in a work that so accurately decries the warping of higher education through lobbying by financially-vested interests, she uncritically parrots the risible talking line that we have a college graduate shortage, that we are falling behind, and that the college premium has never been greater - all talking points of the for-profit student lending industry and their mouthpieces (i.e. Lumina Foundation, IHEP, etc). Worse yet, some of her cites in this regard can be traced back to the likes of Sallie Mae in three steps or less. Fact is, 50% college graduate underemployment is a sign of college graduate oversupply. not undersupply. Ditto for 50% law school grad underemployment. White collar age discrimination is a sign of college grad oversupply. So are poverty-level wages for adjunct college professors. And the college premium is only derived by comparing recent grads' salaries to high school grad salaries, which are falling very quickly. But make no mistake: the salaries of college graduates are also falling, and have been stagnant in real terms since the 1970's, even as the average cost of college has increased several hundred percent over inflation during that period. Etc, et al.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | May 27, 2014 12:21:39 PM

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