Newspaper article

Will the Coronavirus Transform or Destroy Higher Education as We Know It?

Newspaper article

Will the Coronavirus Transform or Destroy Higher Education as We Know It?

Article excerpt

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

NEW YORK — By the time actress Lori Loughlin pleaded guilty last week to bribing her daughters’ way into the University of Southern California, any notion that the U.S. higher education system is fair had evaporated.

Education as the great equalizer? Hardly. Harvard researcher Anthony Jacks revealed in his groundbreaking 2019 book how poor students cleaned showers and toilets and went hungry after cafeterias closed while their wealthier Ivy League classmates fled campus for ski resorts and spring break beaches.

Transparent admission standards? Nope. In 2006, journalist Daniel Golden exposed how President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, found his way into Harvard despite lackluster grades with the help of his dad’s $2.5 million donation. Fair admission tests? Paul Tough’s new book deftly explored why standardized test scores like the SAT inevitably tilt elite college admissions towards rich students, as does their ability to pay in full.

And last year, the outrageous Varsity Blues scandal that netted Loughlin, college coaches and dozens of others showed how money, celebrity and fraud can pave a road into the nation’s most coveted institutions.

Now, with the coronavirus upending campus life, comes “The Merit Myth,” in which Georgetown researcher Anthony Carnevale, along with Peter Schmidt and Jeff Strohl, meticulously detail the many ways U.S. colleges favor the rich.

“The Merit Myth” describes how higher education gives lip service to the promise of social mobility, while remaining ever more segregated by class and race. It comes at a time when, despite some strides, poorer and minority students are disproportionately attending community colleges and regional public universities with lower success rates.

Only 19 percent of blacks and Latinos with high SAT scores go to selective institutions, compared to 31 percent of whites with similar scores, the book points out. And whites are far more likely to benefit from the earnings premium that comes with a college degree.

Carnevale’s research has long helped inform The Hechinger Report’s journalism on higher education inequality. But last week I had the opportunity to ask him about his latest recommendations and how and if he sees any chance of improving this landscape as the coronavirus shutters campuses and forces students online.

Those recommendations include improving college and career counseling and evaluating colleges on whether students find good jobs and ascend the economic ladder, instead of their selectivity in admissions and the academic profile of their incoming class. The book also calls for ending legacy admissions, ensuring that colleges enroll at least 20 percent of their students from low-income families, and treating high school, college and career training as one system.

Will a backdrop of economic ruin prompt higher education to listen to feedback on how to become more accountable, flexible and accessible? Or will a new era of big budget cuts at public universities, along with enormous pressures on already struggling four-year liberal arts institutions, make college even more expensive and elusive for students from low-income and middle-class families?

The answer is a little of both, Carnevale explained. He called the virus “something of a moment of judgment for higher education, a shock that will accelerate [negative] trends that are already under way,” as well as one that could finally open the door for systemic policy change.

Higher education has been “headed for a cliff,” he said, propelled there by increasing public cynicism about the return on investment of tuition and by demographic shifts that caused enrollment to decline. Even before coronavirus pressures emerged, colleges were giving away more than half of their revenue in the form of discounts and financial aid, just to fill seats. …

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