CHAPTER SEVEN
DISTRIBUTING HIGHER EDUCATION

Although many Americans think of colleges and universities as selective institutions, most are open to all applicants who have a high-school degree and can afford the tuition. As long as it remains difficult to get an adequate education or a good job without a college degree, there will be reason to support a substantial sector of nonselective community colleges and state universities.1 But it would be a mistake for democratic governments to support nonselective universities at the expense of selective ones. The primary democratic purposes of the two sets of institutions are distinct. An improved system of primary schools would ideally serve the purpose of providing all citizens with an adequate education. Selective universities ideally serve the purpose of higher education.2 Neither ideally serve the purpose of guaranteeing good employment. An improved economy along with job-training programs could come closer than either set of institutions in helping most citizens get good jobs.

This chapter focuses on the issue of how higher education within selective universities should be distributed. Although they constitute a minority ofthe over 3,000 American universities, selective universities raise, for reasons I explore below, some very important issues concerning the distribution of democratic education above the threshold, the most obvious being how universities should decide whom to admit.3

Nobody doubts that the freedom to decide “who may be admitted to study” is essential to a university's ability to maintain its own academic and associational standards, but many doubt how absolute this “essen-

____________________
1
I use the terms “college” and “university” interchangeably from here on.
2
Compare Michael Rustin, “The Idea of the Popular University: A Historical Perspective,” in Janet Finch and Michael Rustin, A Degree of Choice?: Higher Education and the Right to Learn (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), pp. 17–66. Rustin's critical account of higher education in Great Britain points toward the ideal of a comprehensive, nonselective system of higher education.
3
This discussion applies to both public and private universities. The limits of legitimate state regulation vary, according to my argument, not with the form of ownership but with the (legitimate) purposes to which a university is dedicated. Insofar as publicly owned universities may not be sectarian, the state may prevent them from preferring Protestants, say, to Catholics and Jews. But the same criteria that would make it illegitimate for a public university to discriminate against blacks would also make it illegitimate for a private university to do so.

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