Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Sabotaging the American Dream

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Sabotaging the American Dream

Article excerpt

By now, it's not news that higher educations commitment to low- and middle-income students has deteriorated badly.

The students are slammed by soaring tuition fees. Many of them receive an inferior education, work on the side, and drop out or graduate with degrees that don't help them get jobs. They're left with huge debts that they can't pay off.

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In her recent book, Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream, Suzanne Mettler gives a clear, readable account of how the country has veered from a more equitable path since the 1980s.

She examines the intersection of money and politics. Some readers may find the passages about committees, acts and government programs a bit tedious, but those who stick with them will get a valuable lesson in how the system works--or doesn't.

Mettler also goes a step further in her criticism than many analysts do. The Cornell University political scientist says that, far from giving anyone who wants to succeed a good chance, higher ed is evolving into a caste system.

Higher ed takes students from different economic levels and makes them even more unequal, she says.

Mettler says that the country's once-mighty efforts to ensure poorer students can work hard and get ahead have withered.

"Higher education policies that worked well in the past are still in place, but they have deteriorated or gone off course," she writes.

Not only has the political system become too dysfunctional to tackle even the basics of updating rules and laws, but it's become a "plutocracy," she says, responsive "primarily to the concerns of wealthy and powerful interests."

Something is wrong when 11 countries, including Poland and Korea, outdo the United States in the percentage of youth who earn college degrees, Mettler says.

Hurting the numbers in the United States are low- and moderate-income students, who are hardly more likely to graduate from college than those of their parents' generation.

Refuting those who doubt college degrees' worth, Mettler says more Americans need to have them, not less.

Mettler says evidence shows a college education remains a prime factor in improving one's life in society, and the public agrees on its importance.

Yet in recent years it has been tougher for the less affluent to earn a decent college education.

One problem is rising tuition rates. Within the bottom-income quintile, the cost of attending a public four-year college went from 42 percent of family income in 1971 to 114 percent in 2011.

Mettler blames three main factors for the current state of affairs: federal student aid that hasn't kept up with tuition rates; declining state support for colleges; and the rise of for-profit schools, which make a lot of money, rake in federal funding--and leave their students faring worse in the job market than those from other institutions. …

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