Since the 1980s, I’ve been following, and occasionally contributing to, the national debate about whether America is becoming a more unequal society. For most of those years, the position of my friends on the right has been that the validity of studies showing growing inequality is highly questionable. As mounting evidence has made that position untenable, their main argument has shifted to: Who cares? Inequality isn’t really a bad thing, they say, because in America, unlike the Old World, class isn’t fixed. Today’s elite is not the same as yesterday’s or tomorrow’s; inequality is the incentive system that makes our upwardly mobile society work.
But in recent years, a number of major studies have come out showing that America isn’t as upwardly mobile as we thought. Countries like Sweden, Denmark, and even the UK have more movement between classes than we do. In general, Americans at the bottom aren’t rising up, many in the middle are falling behind, and those at the top are not only doing better and better but also passing on their privileged positions to their kids. This explosion of our assumptions about upward mobility is the biggest undigested fact in American society right now.
The one tool that almost everyone would agree we have to combat these trends is education, especially post-secondary education. It turns out, however, that the higher education sector itself has become a vehicle for perpetuating inequality. In July, Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce published a study showing that while more blacks and Latinos are going to college, they are increasingly being channeled to the nation’s 3,250 least-selective “open access” schools. Whites, on the other hand, are increasingly enrolling in the 468 most-selective colleges, which spend twice as much on instruction per pupil. White students went from being 9 percentage points overrepresented at these schools in 1995 to being 13 percentage points overrepresented in 2009. Lest you think this is pure meritocracy at work, consider this: 24 percent of whites with combined SAT scores above 1000 make it into those selective schools; for blacks and Hispanics, the figures are 17 percent and 18 percent respectively.
This is hugely significant because the chance of graduating from one of the open-access schools is slightly more than half of what it is at selective universities, and even those who do get degrees from open-access schools stand to earn substantially less over a lifetime than students from more selective colleges.
The idea that the institutions we rely on to fight inequality may in fact be making the problem worse has long driven us crazy here at the Washington Monthly. That’s why, since 2005, we’ve devoted an entire issue every year to higher education. This year’s college guide, as always, features an alternative ranking (compiled by Kevin Carey and Robert Kelchen, see introduction here) that rewards schools for, among other things, recruiting and graduating students of modest means—in conscious contrast to the U.S. News & World Report, which ranks colleges based on money, exclusivity, and prestige, thus perpetuating all the worst aspects of the current system.
This year we also offer a “best bang for the buck” ranking of schools that help non-wealthy students attain marketable degrees at reasonable prices. In addition, we rank the fifty best community colleges—those that do a superior job of helping students learn and graduate. And we investigate the nation’s worst community colleges, many of which, as Haley Sweetland Edwards discovered, are located in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of America’s richest communities.
If we want our higher education system to be once again an equalizer of opportunity, there are two basic ways to go. The first is to open up more slots at elite institutions for lower-income students. That means fighting the increasing tendency, which Stephen Burd investigates, of universities offering “merit aid” to wealthy students who can afford to pay higher tuition. And it means blowing the whistle, as Paul Stephens does, on the growing practice of flagship state universities recruiting “full pay” foreign undergraduates while reducing seats for in-state students.
The second way to fix the system is to improve the schools that lower-income and minority students already attend. To that end, we sent journalist Jamaal Abdul-Alim to his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, to find out why so many black students never make it out with a degree in hand. And we asked Anne Kim to explore new experiments in “credentialing,” in which employees can earn college credits or the equivalent on the job.
The trends of rising inequality and declining economic mobility can seem intractable to the extent that they are driven by forces (global wage differentials, changing family structure) largely beyond government’s control. But our higher education system is not uncontrollable. It’s made up of institutions built and run by Americans and subsidized annually with tens of billions of our tax dollars. If it is contributing to inequality, that’s because we’ve let it, not because it must.