Reproducing Social Inequalities through Higher Education: Critical Thinking as Valued Capital

Article excerpt

The American education system perpetuates the social inequalities of a class hierarchy by allocating differential "educational capital" along class lines. As the culminating stage of an ongoing sorting process operating within the formal schooling structure, higher education enables members of privileged status groups to accrue greater educational advantages while those of less privileged backgrounds go educationally disadvantaged. Through a synthesis of evidence found in the literature, this review strives to show that unequal critical thinking development at institutions of varying selectivity, coupled with the positive association between socioeconomic status and institutional selectivity, constitutes one way by which postsecondary institutions engage in social reproduction.

The important relationship between institutional selectivity and the development of higher order thinking skills is one that is little studied and rarely scrutinized. Yet, the significance of this linkage holds important implications concerning a systemic flaw that mars the American higher education system. That certain valuable cognitive skills such as critical thinking1 are less pursued at nonselective colleges and universities (where individuals from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds tend to be concentrated) than at selective institutions suggests that the higher education system engages in the transmission of social inequality by availing opportunities to succeed in adult life for some while constraining opportunities for others. Such a notion is a direct challenge to the much-cherished American ideology regarding equal opportunity through education.

Higher education has longed served as the gatekeeper to middle and upper level positions in the class structure. In Economy and Society, Max Weber (1968) noted the important role of education in society's allocation of rewards through the expanding differentiation of credentials. A crucial shift in history occurred as assignment of society's positions of power and privilege became decreasingly determined by ancestry and increasingly dictated by the possession of diplomas and certificates. As college attendance became more universal, the prestige of one's alma mater became more significant. The competition to get into "the best" college seems to have intensified in recent years (Cook & Frank, 1996) and accounts for much of the hoopla that surrounds the annual ranking of colleges and universities by such publications as U.S. News & World Report. Mobility-minded parents' thirst for information by which to navigate successfully through the plethora of choices associated with the college admission process has helped make college national rankings "big business" (McDonough, Korn, & Yamasaki, 1997). High stakes are involved in the reputation of an institution for it signals to prospective consumers what they can expect in terms of the quality of a product (Fombrun, 1996). Presumably the higher up in the prestige hierarchy, the superior the education. And, in fact, both college selectivity (usually defined as the average SAT score of students at that school) and prestige ratings have been commonly used as an index for college quality (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991).

Because higher education is recognized as being very important to economic and social mobility in American society, scholars interested in social stratification have sought to understand how institutional variation leads to differential effects on students. For example, research has investigated outcome differences between attendance at two-year and four-year colleges (see Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). Despite facilitating social mobility for some, community colleges have been accused of reproducing class differences. Initial attendance at two-year versus four-year institutions has been found to adversely affect college persistence, degree attainment, and occupational status (e.g., Alba & Lavin, 1981; Breneman & Nelson, 1981; Dougherty, 1991, 1992; Monk-Turner, 1988, 1990; Pincus, 1980; Velez, 1985). …