Barely Guilty

Academics love to have social problems to analyze, even if they’re only problems in their own minds. A good example is the wringing of hands over the increasing “wealth gap” in society. If, on the whole, the poor have become only a little better off at the same time the rich have become a lot better off, that’s a serious problem.

Recently, the Chronicle Review picked up that dispute and posed the question: Has higher education become an engine of inequality? The editors solicited nine short essays and I contributed one of them—the only one that didn’t take the position that higher education was responsible for the gap and must do something about it.

The editor set up the debate with some statistics from a recent Pew Charitable Trusts study: “62 percent of Americans raised in the top one-fifth of the income scale stay in the top two-fifths; 65 percent born in the bottom fifth stay in the bottom two-fifths.”

We aren’t told whether those numbers have changed in recent years, but it doesn’t seem obvious that they represent a social problem. Look at it this way: 35 percent of people who are born in the poorest quintile eventually earn enough to make it into one of the top three quintiles, and 38 percent of those born into the wealthiest 20 percent eventually fall into one of the three lowest quintiles.

Is there any reason why those numbers are bad and ought to be different?

Then we read that a University of Michigan study found that the disparity in college completion rates between students from wealthy families and poor ones has grown by 50 percent since the 1980s.

Let’s assume that’s true. Is it because our colleges and universities are somehow short-changing students from poorer families? Or is it perhaps because students from poorer families are less likely to be well prepared for college than they were thirty years ago?

We then get the editor’s main question: What role has higher education played in society’s stratification?

Society’s stratification.  Those are words to set pulses racing among liberal academics. All the other respondents wrote that higher education was indeed to blame and needed to make amends for having made society more stratified.

My own contrary view is readily summarized. 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. (There is already movement in that direction, but mostly from outside “edupreneurs.”)

What did the other writers have to say?

Richard Kahlenberg never misses an opportunity to beat the drums for his favorite policy change, namely affirmative action based on socio-economic class—i.e., favoring students from poorer, working-class family backgrounds. He writes, “Higher education in the U.S. is highly stratified, showering the most resources on the most-advantaged students. Low-income and minority students are concentrated in community colleges….”

True enough. Per student spending at elite colleges and universities is much higher than at community colleges. But it does not follow that the usefulness of the education a student receives varies directly with the amount of money a school spends. Simply because a student goes to a pricey college, where much of the spending goes toward non-academic frills and amenities, does not mean that he or she will learn more than attending a lower-cost college where the faculty concentrate on their students.

That was the finding of a paper by economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Princeton’s Russell Nieli summarizes it this way: “People who already have the highest earning potential often attend the most selective colleges, and much of their post-college success can be attributed to the superior talents and personal factors they bring with them to college, rather than to the superior schooling or contacts which they make while in school.”

Nor is it the case that students who attend non-prestigious schools such as community colleges cannot have highly successful careers. Among the Americans who are community college graduates are news anchor Jim Lehrer, baseball pitcher and now president of the Texas Rangers Nolan Ryan, film director George Lucas, and Nolan Archibald, CEO of Black & Decker.

Degrees aren’t destiny. What you make of your life is up to you.

If we followed Kahlenberg’s advice and used a preferential admissions policy to put more students from relatively poor families into those high-cost, supposedly elite colleges, that would do nothing to lessen social stratification. How much an individual earns depends on his or her productivity, not the prestige of the degree hanging on the wall (if any).

In their piece, sociologists Laura Hamilton and Elizabeth Armstrong maintained that “By catering to the affluent minority, public universities are ceasing to serve as vehicles for economic mobility….”

It is true that some public universities, particularly “flagship” schools that have high U.S. News rankings, have begun favoring applicants from wealthier families who can pay the full sticker price. (As you see from the data in this report, from 1983 to 2006, the percentages of students who receive Pell Grants fell somewhat at the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina, and the University of Virginia, but increased at Berkeley and UCLA.) That, however, does not mean that such schools are becoming exclusive enclaves for children from wealthy families.

Nor does it mean that good students from lower-income families won’t have any chance at a good career if they go to a less expensive, less prestigious college instead of an elite one.

Students may in fact receive a better education at a small college with good academic standards and professors who work closely with them (here’s one example) than at a large, famous research university where professors often hide behind what Professor Murray Sperber calls “the faculty/student non-aggression pact.”

In short, almost any college, selective or not, can be a “vehicle for economic mobility.” Whether it is depends on what the student does with the opportunity.

Anthony Carnevale states that college education has become “a highly stratified bastion of privilege.” I think that is a misuse of the word “privilege.” Under monarchies, people born into the nobility had privileges. In America, just because you have a college degree—even one from an elite institution—does not confer any “privilege.” It doesn’t make you entitled to a good job, or even any job at all. Many of last year’s OWS protesters were, after all, unemployed college graduates.

Carnevale complains that our higher education system matches “the most-advantaged students with the most-selective institutions.” But that’s not exactly right. Many students who come from wealthy families but have unimpressive academic records wind up attending mid- and lower-tier colleges; many other students who excel academically but come from relatively poor families are admitted into the “most-selective institutions.”

To a large extent, the “great sorting” Carnevale talks about is sorting by academic aptitude, not by wealth. In any event, as I’ve already argued, where a student goes to college does not determine the course of his life.

If you read any of the other essays, you’ll find that they’re cut from the same cloth as the three above.

Our higher education system has many faults, but it doesn’t keep the rich rich and the poor poor.