Yes, College is an Engine of Inequality

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran nine essays by various education experts on whether higher education has become an “engine of inequality.” Of the nine short responses, George Leef, the Director of Research for the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, was the only one to disagree, believing that government policies have caused greater inequality, not higher education. Not just is Leef wrong here, he offered no evidence for his thesis and even provides support for the opposite opinion, that education has increased inequality. Here’s his argument:

Our national arteriosclerosis is a result of the growing burden of regulations that make it more difficult for poor people to start businesses on their own or find job openings with good career paths. Local business regulations, state licensing mandates, and federal minimum-wage and other rules have all made our economy more rigid than it once was, with a strongly disparate impact on the poor.

Leef says this, but then gives no further evidence that this is the case. And even if he had provided evidence, it still does not show that high education has not been an engine of inequality. The fact that government policies contribute to income inequality does not exclude higher education from responsibility.

He then correctly points out that a college degree has become a necessity for many jobs that did not used to require a degree. He calls this “credential inflation” and admits that it is a factor in growing inequality; college graduates have fared much better during the recession than non-college graduates did. Just 4.1 percent of college graduates are unemployed right now while 8.4 percent of high school graduates and 12.6 percent of those with less than a high school diploma are unemployed. Leef is right here, but this is all evidence that higher education is an engine of inequality.

This “credential inflation” has significantly increased the need for a college degree, but many low-income kids have little chance of earning one. A 2005 study from the Economic Policy Institute found that just 29 percent of low-income students who scored well on 8th grade tests earned their degree. For high-income students, 30 percent of students who scored poorly on the test completed college while just three percent of low-income students who scored badly on the test earned a degree.

Leef then goes on to even explicitly admit that higher education has increased inequality when he says in his own follow up article:

To the slight extent that our higher education has increased social stratification, it is due to the mania for college credentials the system has helped unleash. Some people who can’t obtain the credentials that are increasingly required of job applicants—even for work that calls for nothing more than basic trainability—are shut off from good career paths. That is something of an obstacle to social mobility and if the higher education industry wanted to make amends, it could work toward alternative credentials that would be less costly and better indicators of employability.

He may want to believe that higher education is not an engine of inequality, but everything he says indicates pretty much the opposite.

Many said that higher education was the great equalizer for students of different socioeconomic backgrounds, but the evidence does not support this. Higher education has always contributed to economic inequality and continues to do so today.

A study published in the National Bureau of Economic Research in December of last year found that just five percent of low-income students born between 1961 and 1964 graduated from college compared to 36 percent of their high-income counterparts. For low-income students born between 1979 and 1982, nine percent graduated from college compared to 54 percent of high-income students born in that same period who completed school. Currently, just eight percent of low-income students graduate from college compared to 82 percent of high-income students who do.

Leef can continue to say that higher education is not an engine of inequality, but even his own argument doesn’t back that up.

Danny Vinik

Danny Vinik is an intern at the Washington Monthly.