Academic journal article College and University

Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream

Academic journal article College and University

Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream

Article excerpt


In Degrees of Inequality, Suzanne Mettler posits that u.S. public policies regarding higher education have veered off course. Specifically, Mettler states, "Over the past 30 years, our system of higher education has gone from facilitating upward mobility to exacerbating social inequality" (p. 5). Although previous policies cleared pathways for an increasingly diverse student body (e.g., the G.I. Bill, Pell Grants, Title IX), they have failed to keep pace with today's economic realities.

Mettler identifies three primary factors that have contributed to this growing problem: (1) Pell grants (federal financial aid awards) have failed to keep pace as the cost of tuition has escalated; (2) state governments have reduced financial support for higher education even as institutions' operating costs have increased; and (3) the for-profit education sector has captured a significant portion of federal student aid funds. Mettler asserts, "These three sets of policy developments, in combination, have transformed the u.S. system of education from one that provides access and opportunity to one that widens economic inequality and fosters social division" (p. 11).

At present, middle- to low-income students are borrowing more in student loans and increasingly are attending institutions which "invest far less in students and typically leave them heavily in debt" (p. 13). In addition, students are working longer hours in order to pay for school and thus are increasing their time to degree and diminishing their ability to finish their education. According to Derek Bok (2013), "A significant fraction of the students who drop out prior to completion eventually default on repaying the federally guaranteed loans they have accumulated in the course of their unsuccessful effort to earn a degree" (p. 102). Consistent with findings by Armstrong and Hamilton (2013), Mettler notes that the policies originally established to help students gain access to college now amplify financial disparity and reinforce class differences.

Increasing Inequality

Despite the fact that students are entering college in greater numbers than in years past, graduation rates remain significantly lower for students on the bottom rung of the economic ladder than for their more affluent peers. Further, students with greater economic means overwhelmingly attend private, nonprofit institutions and flagship public institutions whereas students of lower socioeconomic status typically attend comprehensive universities, community colleges, and for-profit institutions. This distinction is important. Mettler notes, "Today, it matters increasingly not only whether you go to college, but also what type of college you attend" (p. 8).

Private, nonprofit institutions and flagship public universities are heavily subsidized by alumni support, interest from endowments, and research dollars and therefore provide students with greater levels of financial support and institutional resources. On the other hand, colleges and universities that are subjected to dwindling state allocations and that are focused on bottom-line results offer far less to students and families, thereby further widening the disparity among social classes. Mettler asserts, "[F]or students at the bottom half of the [income] spectrum, their greatest obstacle to completing a four-year degree is not lack of ability or motivation, but insufficient financial support" (p. 28).

Driving Forces Behind Policy Deterioration

Since the mid-i940s, higher education policies in the United States have been designed to facilitate access by students throughout the economic spectrum. Despite differences of opinion in Congress, these policies have been largely bipartisan. Plowever, two recent trends in Congress have derailed the policymaking process: political polarization and the rise of special interest groups. …

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