Higher Education: An Engine of Social Mobility…or a Driver of Inequality?
The college admissions scandal finds the rich still buying their way into elite colleges, drawing attention to the role of college in perpetuating inequality. But university education remains a source of social mobility and increasing group equality in America. Deondra Rose finds that federal higher education policy empowered women to become majorities of college graduates and voters. Yet recent trends in the economics of higher education have been less positive. Brendan Cantwell finds that inequalities between colleges are increasing, leaving poor students to pay the price in higher tuition and loans. Policy is central to higher education’s roles in both equalizing opportunity and undermining mobility.
Grossmann: This week on the Science of Politics, how higher education makes us more and less equal. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. The college admissions scandal finds the rich still buying their kids way into elite colleges, drawing attention to the role of college in perpetuating inequality. But university education remains a source of social mobility, and increasing group equality in America.
Grossmann: This week I talk to Deondra Rose of Duke University about her Oxford book, Citizens By Degree. She finds that federal higher education policy empowered women to become majorities of college graduates and voters. Even without those initial ambitions college access had an important role in rising gender equality. But recent trends in the economics of higher-ed have not been so positive.
Grossmann: I also talk to Brendan Cantwell of Michigan State University about his Rutgers book with Barrett Taylor, Unequal Higher Education. He finds that inequalities between colleges are increasing, with many institutions lacking the resources to educate. That leaves poor students to pay the price in higher tuition and loans. The good news first, Rose’s story is an optimistic vision of how policy made women the collegiate majority.
Rose: If you look around U.S. college campuses today it’s really hard to miss the fact that women are present in full force. So in the 2017/2018 academic year women made up a full 56% of American college students. If you consider that next to the fact that historically women have been so marginalized in U.S. higher educational institutions it’s a really striking development. So I think a lot of people forget the fact that through much of American history there were gender quotas that colleges and universities used to suppress the number of women that they would admit. Others just simply excluded women entirely. And then women also had a lot of difficulty finding the money that it took to go to college.
Rose: So my book makes that case that law makers really use public policy in a strategic way to fight against gender discrimination in higher education. And it was through something that I describe as a one two punch in an assault against that discrimination. So the first punch was through redistributive policy. So what we know think of as the core of our financial aid programs, they were actually started in the late 1950s and in the mid 1960s, and that helped to remove financial need as a significant barrier to women’s movement into higher ed.
Rose: And then the second punch was through regulatory policy. And so law makers basically circled back in 1972 with policy that made it illegal for colleges and universities to discriminate against women in terms of admissions, and programming. And so it was through that, I think really powerful combination of policy forces that really helped to set the stage for women to become this majority in higher ed.
Grossmann: Cantwell agrees, but sees college’s roles threatened by rising inequality between institutions.
Cantwell: Women are at parity, or even a majority in most colleges and universities. And that is true up and down the sort of status hierarchy. What I will say is, parts or the 20th century story of American higher education are really … This is a success story in a lot of ways. What is remarkable is the speed at which access was expanded to women, and to low income students, and black students who had been formally or informally excluded from the system, rapidly over the course of the 20th century. And the expansion of enrollments at individual places, and the expansion of the system itself, it is a great success stories in many ways, and it did contribute to social mobility and to expanded opportunity.
Cantwell: I think the challenge that we have now is, in some ways it’s like our highway system right. There’s this massive infrastructure project that was built very well, and quite quickly. And now we have to figure out how to maintain it so that it continues to work for the country, and so that it can be adapted to sort of the new realities.
Grossmann: Cantwell and Taylor find big financial challenges for colleges.
Cantwell: The biggest takeaways of the book are that the system of higher education, four year colleges and universities in the United States is really stratified. We’ve always known that it’s really stratified, but we think that we’ve shown with some details in the way that they’re stratified. I think probably the biggest takeaway is that we’ve been hearing for decades about the consequences of state divestment in higher education for public colleges and universities.
Cantwell: And that’s certainly shown up in the price that students pay, but for the first time right after the great recession it seems like its also shown up in the basic operating model of these institutions. So that smaller public universities that have become really tuition dependent now resemble, in sort of their underlying structures, now resemble small private universities in ways that they never have before. And we know that small private universities are especially vulnerable to enrollment fluctuations. And the social consequence of public higher education facing that same vulnerability is much higher.
Grossmann: Rose agrees that we face new challenges, but thinks history shows we can deal with them by regularly updating policy.
Rose: I mean I think one of the biggest challenges we face in higher education policy right now is that sometimes we get stuck in … I feel like there’s this inertia in terms of how we think of the problems facing higher ed. So historically I would argue that law makers were a little more nimble when it comes to thinking about what the challenges were of their day. So in the mid 20th century, 1940s and 50s, lawmakers recognized that financial need was a crucial barrier limiting access. 1972 we recognized that it was institutional discrimination that was limiting women’s access.
Rose: I feel like in 2019 we’ve gotta recognize that there’s a new set of problems that are limiting access, or full access for marginalized groups. And so that might require us to deviate from the precedents, or the tried and true typical financial aid. And I think that’s what we’ve really come to lean on are those, you know the Pell Grants, and Perkins Loans, and Stafford loans. And instead we’re not … I think there’s a lot of policy drift here. To use Paul Pearson’s and Jacob Hackers terms, we’re seeing that there have been these really substantial, social, and demographic changes. And alongside this striking increase in the cost of college over time, and a failure to really make sure that our policies are keeping up with those challenges, or are able to address them fully.
Rose: So I think we need to reimagine higher education policy, and I think it’s something that we ought to do periodically, is to check in and make sure that we’re really devising solutions that are effectively addressing the contemporaneous challenges.
Grossmann: Rose’s path to her book, Citizens By Degree, combines her scholarly and personal interests.
Rose: So my interest in public policy, and in political science really is rooted in an appreciation for problem solving, and also an appreciation for inequality. I’ve always been fascinated by how law makers work to solve problems. And particularly the problems faced by marginalized groups, groups that have been excluded from some of the resources, and activities, and experiences that we associate with upward mobility. So when I started thinking really carefully about what I wanted to do as a researcher I was really focused on gender early on in my academic career, and thinking about equality for women.
Rose: Also, really interested in higher education, because in my own case, in the cases of many people close to me, higher education was really this extremely valuable resource that made it possible to do things that had never been done. You know maybe in one’s family, or you know things that you really couldn’t have fathomed being able to do. So really thinking seriously about the role that higher education has played in women’s progress. And I think that’s also a broader trend in my newer research projects, is thinking about higher education has helped marginalized groups to become more fully integrated as citizens.
Grossmann: Cantwell wrote Unequal Higher Education after seeing the U.S. stand out in international comparisons with trouble reducing inequality.
Cantwell: I have worked on international comparative higher education studies for a long time. And I was doing an ended book on massification, the globalization of the massification of higher education. And that work led me to sort of discover that as higher education systems expanded, more and more people participated in different countries around the world, that what we didn’t … We observed a couple of things. One is that systems tended to become more stratified through massification. And the other thing is that even though the individual returns to education were pretty high, overall levels of social inequality didn’t seem to go down.
Cantwell: So with those insights I became really interested in what this might look like, specifically in the United States in recent years, given state divestment, and the sort of intense competition that we’ve seen through rankings, and the great lengths that families have gone to to get their children into sort of what they perceive the best colleges and universities. And I have had long relationship with Barrett Taylor, the University of North Texas. I met Barrett when he was a graduate student at the Institute for Higher Education at the University of Georgia, and I was a post doc there. And he and I got to talking about some of the work that I was doing for this high participation systems book. And he said, “Well hey I’ve got an idea about how to add some empirical weight to this.” And through those conversations we just started gathering data, and working on a conceptual model, and the book sort of began to develop organically through those conversations.
Grossmann: Let’s dig into each project. Deondra Rose wanted to put higher education back into the mix as a major driver of gender equality.
Rose: I actually started to pay attention to this topic when I was in a graduate seminar years and years ago. And it was a course on work/family policy in comparative perspective. And at one point we were talking about the progress that American women have made, and really looking into the women’s increase in higher educational attainment. And so we discussed a number of different forces that are widely accepted as having precipitated that, or having helped to facilitate that.
Rose: And so we focused on demographic trends, so the fact that women were having fewer kids, or getting married at later ages. We talked about social trends, the fact that there was this declining sense that women should only focus their lives and their efforts in the private sphere. There’s a decline of just outright discrimination at that time, and also socially just the women’s rights movement, that was an extreme force that has been widely regarded as having helped to move women into public spaces and education, as well as increase labor participation among women.
Rose: And so one thing for me as someone who’s really interested in public policy. I was struck that we weren’t talking about government programming, and financial aid in particular. And so I think that adding an appreciation for the role that public policy has played historically in helping to promote women’s progress is something that I hope this book makes as a contribution to that discussion. One thing I try to be really careful about is to make it clear that it’s not that the federal programming took the place of, or was somehow the sole factor that really made this possible. It really did happen in concert with other things, including this attention to women’s rights. But I think it’s an important feature that we … I think it’s important that we acknowledge that this was also a force here.
Grossmann: She finds that federal policy changes creating financial aid started the path.
Rose: So the National Defense Education Act of 1958, and the Higher Ed Act of 1965 were two landmark financial aid policies. And I think it’s important, as you point out Matt, that these were gender neutral. So they were framed in a way that made them pretty broadly accessible. And so the National Defense Education Act provided the very first federal student loans that were allocated on the basis of need in a very broad way. And then lawmakers followed up seven years later, in ’65, with the Higher Ed Act, and that created additional loans, as well as the very first broadly accessible need based grants.
Rose: And so these two policies are really important in terms of gender because they were the first time that women actually had access to this type of broadly accessible financial assistance to attend higher educational institutions. And men had actually enjoyed an earlier iteration of similar policy under the GI Bill in 1944. So I think it’s a really important landmark for women because they really were largely omitted from the benefits of the GI Bill. It was something like fewer than 3% of GIs who returned from World War II who were women, and among those an especially small proportion made use of the GI Bill’s higher education benefits, which were really, really generous.
Rose: So for the first time women who had dealt with all kinds of financial barriers to higher education, it’s really interesting to note that with the creation of the NDEA and the HEA, they too could experience government support when it came to pursuing college degrees.
Grossmann: But it is certainly not a story of pro-active legislating for equality from the beginning.
Rose: Two law makers who were from Alabama, Southern Democrats, in the mid 20th century who spearheaded the National Defense Education Act, they had tried in the 1940s and early 1950s to get some sort of federal scholarship program passed. And they had done that work without any success. And it was largely because of tensions over race. It was the sense for many Southern Democrats that they felt that if the federal government swooped in, or swept in, and offered some financial assistance it would also feel as though it could take liberties in telling Southern states what to do, particularly when it came to school desegregation.
Rose:So this was on the heels of the 1954 Brown Vs. Board of Education decision. And many schools in the South were indeed desegregating with all deliberate speed, it was very slow. And so there was a lot of discomfort among Southern Democrats with federal programs. And this was not just in education, it was also in health, social policies that could come in and lead to some sort of disruption of the racial order of things. And so they pushed back on these.
Rose: There was also some concern about the question of whether federal support would go to Catholic schools. And so typically proposals would come up and then they would just get struck down. And so what’s interesting is that you had these two Southern Democrats and they had these proposals that weren’t going anywhere, but then Sputnik happened in late 1957. And all of a sudden the U.S. was really shaken by the loss in the space race. And there was, in terms of public opinion, a great deal of interested in trying to gain a sense of why we lost. And people very quickly turned their attention to education.
Rose: So all of a sudden there was this really nice window of opportunity that Lister Hill, the senator from Alabama, and Carl Elliott, a representative from Alabama saw as a really nice opportunity to get their existing education proposal through the process. So they were very crafty, and they gave it a special title, they called it the National Defense Education Act. And they really worked to harness it to this sense of national security, and the sense of crisis, like hey the Soviet Union, they’re not skimping on investing in brain power, or man power. Which was really this sort of gendered term for men’s and women’s mental capacity, or intellectual capacity.
Rose: In the historical record there’s a lot of discussion about how the U.S. is wasting powerful intellectual resources by not investing in the entire citizenry when it comes to education. So, a lot of people associate the NDEA with science, and technology support. I think people have the sense that this provided scholarships for people who were going into STEM fields. But it was really extremely broad and it provided support for people who were going into the humanities, and social science. So it was a really broad, a broad reaching need based program that really got the government into the business of higher education support and financial aid.
Grossmann: Lyndon Johnson then included higher ed in a broader agenda of fighting poverty.
Rose: The Higher Education Act which was part of Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to fight economic inequality. And he saw education as this critical resource when it comes to providing equal opportunity, and promoting upward mobility. So he decided to reinforce the financial aid policies that were created in 1958, the student loans, but to also add a federal scholarship, you know a need based program. And that was something that lawmakers had not been able to do prior. And so I think those two policies really were, they were Promethean when it comes to moving … or when it came to moving the government into this new relationship with its citizens, and with women in particular. You know providing a type of support that women had not had.
Grossmann: By the time of Title Nine gender equality had become a more direct goal.
Rose: And then in 1972 that was an entirely new day for higher education policy. So while the NDEA and the HEA had been gender neutral, Title Nine was very gender conscious. Law makers who crafted it did so with the explicit intention of helping women to gain access where they had been denied. And so I think for me one of the most interesting parts of this research has been the role that race has played, and race politics has played in the development of programs that did so much for women.
Rose: So race was one of the issues that lawmakers had to tiptoe around when they were dealing with the National Defense Education Act in ’58. And then in 1972 when lawmakers decided to use regulatory policies to bring institutions into compliance with this idea that women should be given equal access to institutions, that was really a result of the lessons that were learned from the civil rights movement, and from the crucial landmark civil rights policies of the 1960s.
Rose: And so the god mother of Title Nine was this woman named Bernice Sandler who had experienced some sex discrimination when it came to hiring. She was an adjunct professor, and when a permanent position became available on her faculty she wasn’t invited to apply. And so she was really upset about it and she asked one of her colleagues and he said, “You know what I’m gonna tell you. You just come on too strong for a woman.” And she was really struck by that. And as a result she started to grapple with this question of, gosh are experiences like this simply a result of individual misfortune, or is this part of a broader pattern that might need to be addressed by some sort of government action?
Rose: And so she filed a claim against, I believe it was the University of Maryland where she was working. And on the basis of an executive order, was like 11246, that made it illegal for federal contractors to discriminate on the basis of sex when making hiring decisions. And so she shared that claim with a number of different people throughout government, one of whom was a congresswoman from Oregon named Edith Green. And Edith Green had been a really stalwart participant in early higher ed policies, and sort of that her hand was in the Higher Ed Act, and the NDEA early on. And she was really known as Mrs. Education in the house. And this got her attention. And so she decided to convene some hearings on sex discrimination, just broad hearings to get a sense of what might be going on. And it was really clear early on in the course of those hearings that sex discrimination in higher education, and particularly by higher educational institutions was an issue that was ripe for government intervention.
Rose: And so Edith Green could have come up with a new scholarship program that would target women, maybe a new GI bill but just for women or something like that. But instead she really focused on regulatory policy. And her original intent was to amend the Civil Rights Act from 1964. And she was going to append something that said that there will be no sex discrimination in educational institutions. But it was interesting that the proponents and supporters of the Civil Rights Act they asked her not to do it, and to stand down. They said this is fairly new, it’s still fragile, we don’t wanna do anything that could essentially endanger it, so please to attach this to something else.
Rose: So she decided instead to take advantage of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. So you know the Higher Ed Act is reauthorized every few years, we’re actually right now in the middle of a ramp up to reauthorization in 2019, or in the coming years. But it was time to reauthorize it, and so she decided to use the language of the Civil Rights Act, from the title six of the 1964 Civil Rights act as a template. And she basically took the wording from this really pithy passage, and she inserted the word sex. And she inserted the word education to specify that this would apply to educational institutions. And she amended it to this rambling omnibus reauthorization bill.
Grossmann:But Rose says there’s not much evidence that mass movements brought it about. Instead it was a story of political elites changing.
Rose: You know you hear people talk about Title Nine, and they say people marched for Title Nine, and there was this really active group … There was a lot of women’s activism that helped make Title Nine possible. And that’s not entirely true. A lot of sort of the genesis of Title Nine in 1972, and then also the development of the financial aid policies in the decades prior, were really shaped by like a critical handful of political elites who had personal experiences with discrimination, who really brought those experiences into their work in congress. And they prioritized finding ways to help alleviate some of those challenges for the broader citizenry.
Rose: And so I think … And I guess to say that for Title Nine it was the case that there were marches, and there were instances in which a broader segment of citizens helped to advocate for it, but that came after. That was like in 1976 once we started to grapple with the details of Title Nine. But in terms of the genesis of those programs, they really came from political elites who had personal experiences that helped to bring their attention to the issues, but then also political elites who used their political acumen to get those landmark proposals through the political process and through the legislative process.
Grossmann: Title Nine is known today for athletics, but it was a late consideration in the senate.
Rose:Title Nine really was focused on admissions. And perhaps to a slightly lesser extent to how higher ed institutions treated women once they were on campus, in terms of programming, and the allocation of honors. There are these stories of women, for example being denied Phi Beta Kappa keys, because of this argument that well men are going to need Phi Beta Kappa keys when they are competing for jobs in the labor market. So women you don’t really need that. I mean that was early on.
Rose: And so fast forward to the mid 20th century, women were not provided with equal opportunities in terms of extracurricular activities on campus, or they might’ve been denied access to certain programming. And you know we saw this in athletics for sure that you might have a lack of women’s teams, or if there was a women’s team they might not have school support to get uniforms, or transportation to the games, or access to athletic facilities. But originally Title Nine was really about admissions.
Rose: And so it was really in the course of the discussion of Title Nine in the house and the senate, particularly in the senate, that athletics became an issue. And so it was really when the senate sponsor Birch Bayh, how actually passed away not to long ago, sadly. He introduced this in the senate, and he frames it as, you know just this very reasonable measure to ensure that women have equal access to higher educational institutions. And he and his colleagues start to discuss this, and pretty soon it becomes clear that there is some pushback. And some of that pushback was from senator Strom Thurmond who represented South Carolina, also another fascinating figure who was involved in a lot of the higher ed, and education related discussions during that era.
Rose: He pushed back, and he said, “Well you know what does this mean for our military academies, like the Citadel?” The Citadel was located in his home state, and he took issue with this idea that Title Nine would somehow disrupt the admissions practices at all male institutions, historically male institutions. And then there’s another, I believe it was Peter Dominic, the senator from Illinois, who took issue with this idea of the federal government telling higher educational institutions what to do, and coming in and really dictating what student bodies would look like in a way that could really reshape American higher education.
Rose: And so the senators started to really grapple with, well what could be the implications of this type of regulation. And at some point someone says, “Well what does this mean about locker rooms, and sports teams? Does this mean that women are gonna play football with men and that they’re gonna use the same locker rooms?” And then someone quipped, “Well you know if that’s the case I might have stayed in college a little longer,” or something like that. You know it becomes this ruckus debate.
Rose: And I have to say one of the most fascinating and fun things about doing this research was having the opportunity to really scour the congressional record, and the transcripts from committee and sub-committee hearings to get a sense of these discussions, because this is all on the record. They’re sort of going down the line of what this could mean for sports, and that’s the point at which athletic programs really got interested in Title Nine. So they raised that sports issue during the debates, but Birch Bayh managed to sort of allay concerns by incorporating some exemptions.
Rose: And so he actually incented what traditionally single sex education programs, like all women’s schools, or military academies, also programming like beauty pageants and scouts, things like that. And so exemptions like that helped to really quell some of the concerns, and to get it through.
Grossmann: Rose finds that all three policies increased women’s use of aid, and their educational attainment.
Rose: Historically women have dealt with a really interesting, and very gendered calculus when it comes to finding financial resources to go to college. So historically, before the advent of financial aid programs that really reached them broadly, for families that grappled with limited resources oftentimes if they were choosing between educating a son or educating a daughter, they would choose to educate the son with the understanding that he would become a breadwinner for his family, and it would be a rational investment. Whereas if they decided to invest in the education of a daughter, that could be risky because she would likely, upon getting married or having kids, rotate out of the labor force. And so any investment would be wasted on a woman.
Rose: And so when lawmakers were really considering in the late 1950s about this financial aid program, they actually had women come in and testify in the … You know young women of college age, would you consider taking out a loan or using loans to go to college? And you’d have these little women on the record, or young women on the record say, “Yes I would. I really need this support, I’d be grateful for it.” And you’d hear lawmakers going back and forth about whether women would take advantage of loans. And this question of who on earth would want to marry a woman who’s coming into a marriage with a student loan dowry, a dowry of debt.
Rose: And so there was this question about whether women would actually take advantage. But the early data show that after the National Defense Education Act went into effect women soon became very, very large participants of the program. And I would argue that as women continued to move into higher education we started to see commiserate increases, or comparable increases in their use of financial aid as well. And I think that women’s high use of financial aid policy is connected to the fact that women are … they’re attending higher educational institutions at especially high rates. And they’re also going to school longer.
Rose: So in 2012 for example women earned a full 60% of all master’s degrees conferred in the U.S., and I wanna say 51% of all PhDs. So women are really making use of higher educational programs and the financial aid policies that it takes to pay for them.
Grossmann: It even helped equalize women’s political participation.
Rose: As a political scientist this issue, or the question of women’s higher educational attainment is especially interesting because political scientists have long recognized that educational attainment is perhaps the most powerful determinant of political participation. So we know that people who have more education are significantly more likely to vote, they’re more likely to contact elected officials, they’re more likely to contribute to campaigns, and to protest. They’re also significantly more likely to be mobilized by candidates, and parties, and interest groups for participation. So the fact that we started to see a really interesting narrowing of the gender gap in political engagement as we saw women move into higher education, I think that’s what I would’ve expected to see, and it was really fascinating to see it play out that way.
Grossmann: Brendan Cantwell says the positive story of universities improving social mobility is true, but it might depend on limiting institutional inequality.
Cantwell: Both thing are true, that colleges and universities reproduce inequality, but they also provide a pathway to mobility. Certainly not going to college can prevent someone from experiencing social mobility, or even lead to downward mobility. The reason that institutional inequality matters is because what matters for social mobility is less about getting access to college, but graduating from college. That’s the real benefit that people experience is when they’re able to complete a degree.
Cantwell: As institutions become more and more tuition dependent, then they have to use tuition money to cover more and more of the sort of basic functions of the university, and can invest less intensely on the things that help students get through college, like academic support, and rich educational experiences. And when students are getting less of a subsidy, and getting less education for their money, then it may put them at greater risk of not being able to graduate. So a study by the economist David Deming found that what really matters for predicting whether students will graduate is the amount of education spending that they receive, rather than the price of the tuition that they’re paying. So what really matters is how much education they’re getting, more than what they’re paying for it.
Grossmann: Some inequality was by design. But the system has broken down.
Cantwell: State systems of higher education have been unequal by design. And the best example of that is the California Master Plan, where the University of California system sort of sat on top of this system to provide elite higher education for the state’s most accomplished students. With the Cal State system below that providing mass baccalaureate level education. And that community colleges below that again as points of access, open access points of access.
Cantwell: And the idea was that all of these three layers would be adequately funded, and that there would be mobility within the system so that you could transfer from the community colleges to the Cal State’s, or even to the University of California system. And there was never the intention to provide equal levels of resources for each campus type. The idea is that the research universities required more resources on a per student basis to be able to be top flight research universities.
Cantwell: The problem comes in when funding adequacy sort of dries up at each of these levels, particularly for the case of the four year system, which we take up in the book, at the University of California’s or the Cal State’s. And now they need to sort of make their own way because they can’t rely on the state to provide adequate resources to fulfill their mission. They begin to seek tuition, and in order to seek tuition you need to be able to find tuition payers who are attracted to status, or distinction, right. If you’re coming from out of state, to pay a high tuition fee you want your kid to be going to a good college right.
Cantwell: This is a sort of colloquial term that you’ll hear all over the place, my son or my daughter is going to a good school. And what they mean by that is a college or university that sort of has the trappings of elite places. So buildings that look nice, maybe that evoke the sort of gothic architecture of private universities on the East Coast. Or research enterprises that are visible, laboratories. Or even the sort of social aspects of higher education, football stadiums and recreational facilities. And so once colleges have to demonstrate that they’re good colleges, that they’re places that you would want to actively choose to send your kid to among a menu of options in order to generate tuition revenue, then this sort of cycle of competition begins.
Cantwell: And so I think that the inequality that we observe, that we document, is both designed, and by design, and for good reasons. But also, has sort of spun out of control because of the consequences of institutions seeking revenue, and seeking status in order to be able to attract revenue.
Grossmann: Cantwell finds a self reinforcing cycle based on admission standards that reinforces inequality.
Cantwell: Universities, one of the fundamental ways that they achieve high status is by actively selecting students. And so students with social advantage choose to apply to universities that are perceived to be good schools, and those universities are good schools because they are exclusive, and actively select students with these markers of merit, like good grades, and complementive extracurricular activities, good SAT or ACT scores. And so these are self reinforcing types of inequality. Individual inequality allows some students to be more meritorious, or at least to appear more meritorious than others, and the schools that are already the most selective are in the best position to select the students that are considered the best students. And that’s one of the ways that individual and institutional inequality feed into each other.
Grossmann: Marketization has changed colleges, with the great recession making financial challenges more acute.
Cantwell: The reason that we begin the argument, that we begin the discussion in 1980 is because that’s where the literature … that’s about the point where the literature says that this period of hyper competition in higher education that has led to increased inequality between institutions, that’s when it really sort of began. And there’s an established sort of narrative in the literature about marketization in higher education beginning in the 80s, and accelerating in the 90s. And we wanted to use that as a backdrop as the story about how we got to this place where the great recession could have dramatically accelerated this inequality among institutions.
Cantwell: And so there’s been not a great, but a couple of important quantitative studies on institutional inequality before. And what they’ve basically found is that institutions of higher education have long been unequal, and that inequality is growing, but it’s growing slowly. And I think that what we wanted to highlight, and what we found through our analysis was that these small drifts in institutional resources potentially have bigger social consequences than we thought. And that they can categorically change the way that institutions operate, so that over time relatively modest continual drift between the best resourced and the worst resourced institutions can remake the field in ways that are potentially profound for students.
Grossmann: Wealthy institutions are pulling away, while the bottom hollows out.
Cantwell: Since the 80s, elite universities, super elite universities have been aggressively investing their endowment assets to maximize return rather than to preserve capital. And that’s resulted in a handful of places just pulling away, so that they’re able to spend two and three times as much per student even as places that we might think casually are comparable. So the sort of resource intensity of an education at Stanford is really not comparable to the resource intensity of an education at the University of Michigan, or the University of California Berkeley anymore.
Cantwell: So on one end of this system is this pulling away of absolute, remarkable wealth. And at the other end, there is a sort of hollowing out of the education that institutions are able to provide, particularly public institutions and many lower status private institutions that rely on tuition, and simply cannot raise enough money to keep up with the rising costs of providing an education to students.
Cantwell: In the middle things get a little bit messier. So flagship campuses for example that get state appropriations, yes their state appropriations have declined, but they’re able, because there’s relatively good demand for those places, they’re able to back fill a lot of their lost revenue from the state with tuition money. That raises some equity concerns, so are the flagship campuses seeking more out of state students rather than serving in state students? Are they seeking students with the ability to pay, and sort of turning their backs on their access mission and their social mobility mission?
Cantwell: And those questions are real in terms of the individual inequalities, but the institutions themselves are able to sort of be okay, even though they’re losing ground relative to their most elite competitors, right. So the University of Michigan is losing ground to Stanford. It’s gaining ground, and it is sort of able to provide a much richer education and do many more things even relative to what it used to be able to do to like other state colleges.
Grossmann: Cantwell says the latest admission scandal shows the oddities of the unequal U.S. system.
Cantwell: One thing that I think we’re learning is that it is just really difficult to figure out how to ration seats at the most desirable colleges and universities. It’s just a really hard problem to figure out who deserves a spot at Harvard, who deserves a spot at Yale. So that’s one thing. It’s just a really tricky problem to figure out how to assign access to these places. Another thing that I’ve been thinking about in reference to the book that Barrett and I have just finished, but in light of this scandal. And in some of the sort of comparative work that I’ve done, is that not all systems are as deeply stratified in terms of status as the U.S. system. So the British system is super stratified as well. But like the Canadian system is less stratified.
Cantwell: The University of Toronto is clearly the biggest research university in the country, and produces the most research. But under graduates don’t compete for a place at Toronto, and it’s not considered as important to go to Toronto as an undergraduate in Canada as it is to go to say a big research university in the United States. And it’s not clear to me entirely how the Canadian system is able to have a much flatter status hierarchy among undergraduate … Like higher education for undergraduate education, even though they take advantage of the efficiency of concentrating resources, research power and a handful of universities. There is too much focus on elite institutions that serve a very small number of students, and really don’t represent the most important questions that we have about higher education which is, how do we get more students into and through meaningful post secondary programs.
Cantwell: But so long as there’s this strong social pool to the elite, it’s also not quite right to say … You know there’s the headline in 538, I think it might’ve been the economist Doug Weber who wrote it, it was like shut up about Harvard. And that makes complete sense, we should shut up about Harvard in a lot of our policy discussions. And Harvard is atypical, it’s not a typical place when we think about American higher education. On the other hand its social pool is so strong that it’s kind of impossible to understand the dynamics of the rest of the system if we don’t understand what’s going on at these super elite institutions.
Grossmann:Rose says it shows the agreed upon importance of college in America, but might be a sign that our equality efforts are facing new opposition.
Rose: On one hand it signals our general sense that higher education is … I mean there’s the question of credentialism, whether it’s the credential itself that people get as a badge of accomplishment, and as something to justify one’s socioeconomic status. Even if, like you say, there’s not mobility there necessarily that makes it easier to transit wealth from one generation to another, or to have people who are well connected in certain social networks, who move within those networks a little more freely or fluidly because they have achieved that credential.
Rose: But I think it also points to the fact that higher education since the mid 20th century especially has become something of … I think a lot of people view it as, it’s just a necessity, it’s what you do in order to be a full participant in society. And I’m just struck by the fact that you see parents who are willing to go to such dramatic lengths to ensure that their kids are able to gain their higher education in these elite institutions like USC, and Yale, and other places. I mean for me I think there’s also this interesting interpretive element of what we’re seeing. And I think it connects to some of the more recent research that I’m doing on higher educational institutions. And I’ve been doing some work on race, and really paying attention to things like Affirmative Action, and the politics of Affirmative Action.
Rose: And I think that one of the … at least one of the big questions I have is about the extent to which our narratives of like educational access, and who has full access, or who has preferred access to institutions shapes how parents are strategizing how to help their own kids get in. So is it the case that because law makers have created policies, very high profile policies to help marginalize groups getting access to higher education. And some of these policies have gained a lot of attention. People are aware that we have programs to help low income students. People are aware that we have programs to help historically marginalized racial and ethnic minorities for example.
Rose: And you just have to wonder whether there’s some interesting political learning going on here to where privileged, or otherwise privileged, socioeconomically groups feel somehow disadvantaged. Like, oh gosh there are these Affirmative Action policies that are going to make my student who doesn’t check off these three boxes, they’re gonna place my kid at a disadvantage and so I’m gonna have to do something different in order to make my child competitive.
Grossmann: Both Rose and Cantwell still have faith in universities and higher-ed policy. Cantwell says policy needs to look at the system as a whole.
Cantwell: A holistic approach is necessary because the colleges and universities are social actors, and the respond to what other colleges and universities are doing. And so while we agree that policy interventions that are targeted are probably appropriate. For example in the book we recommend shoring up the finances of the public colleges and universities that provide the most access to students of color and to low income students. We think that in order to understand why those colleges and universities have sort of entered this precarious position, it’s important to understand the system as a whole, because the value of a college degree is in part positional, and it’s relative to the value of the degree at another place.
Cantwell: And sort of shoring up the value of a degree at the points of access, we think helps to prevent this sort of wider bifurcation of the system, which ultimately we’re concerned will sort of accelerate individual inequality by providing only low value options to students who come from backgrounds that don’t have a lot of social advantage.
Grossmann: Rose says like other U.S. social policy it needs multiple approaches and updates to work well.
Rose: I think there’s something to thinking about public policy in a holistic way. And I think that’s what made this particular combination of policies so powerful, it’s that it was this pairing of carrots and sticks. And that’s really something of a tradition in U.S. social policy. In the history of social policy, oftentimes we will provide some sort of benefit. In this case it was financial aid. But we can’t necessarily count on institutions to get in line, or to necessarily treat everyone equally. So lawmakers might have to circle back. And looking a little more at the big picture, to create policy to really drive home that previous one. And so I think just recognizing that our capacity to really reach the full potential of these policies has really turned on our capacity to supplement with other programming or other measures that help them to go the distance.
Rose: We’d do well to remind ourselves of what is possible in our complex political and policy system. And that even in the face of daunting political challenges, it’s possible to get things done when we take advantage of institutional know how, and strategy, and maybe I think in cases like this, getting something small done in hopes of supplementing it with additional programming down the line that will help to really drive it home, and actualize the entire objective.
Grossmann: Cantwell suggests targeting reinvestment, and rethinking our focus on portable funding direct to students.
Cantwell:What we think needs to happen is public reinvestment needs to occur, and that it needs to occur in a targeted way so that it makes sure that the state, or the public is sharing the costs at the public institutions that right now are able to spend the least on a per student basis, and that require students to cover most of the total cost of their education. Because those places also happen to be the institutions that are the greatest points of access for low income students, and students of color.
Cantwell: So we think targeted reinvestment in particular parts of the system is necessary, rather than thinking about reinvestment as putting the same amount of additional money into all places. The other thing that I’m intrigued with as a policy idea, and I think needs further investigation, is entering into some kind of pact between the federal and state governments and institutions, where institutions agree to some level of mission adherence, maybe measured by the way they spend their money, the sort of categories in which they spend their resources. You have to spend so much on education in related areas. In exchange for maintenance of effort from state and federal dollars.
Cantwell: And that’s where I think the federal government has a bigger role to play. I’m not optimistic in the short run about this, but rather than the federal government only involving itself through portable student aid, grants and loans directly to students who can take them to whatever institution they want, that if the federal government could provide direct funding to states, to institutions, in this sort of maintenance of effort kind of approach that you see in other policy areas that I don’t know all that well, you probably know a lot better than me … Those are promising ideas, now there are some concerns.
Grossmann: Up next for Cantwell is looking at how institutions are evolving. Closing colleges is not all a sign of crisis, but it might start to be.
Cantwell: In some cases it’s not a sign of crisis, and that it is something like market forces weeding out places that just aren’t sustainable anymore. When small private colleges in regions that have flat or declining populations go under, I think that we probably shouldn’t worry too much about it. On the other hand, if public colleges and universities begin to face serious pressure, serious financial pressure to the point of insolvency, then I think it’s something that we do need to pay a lot of attention to, because those institutions are points of access for students who can realize social mobility through them. And because we will sort of contribute to the … It’ll contribute to this ongoing process of uneven access. So if there’s a public college or university in your area that you’re able to go to college because it’s accessible to you sort of through its proximity.
Cantwell: And if places start to go in rural areas, and in urban areas, public universities aren’t able to maintain operations, then we’re gonna have more of these so called college deserts, or education deserts.
Grossmann: Next up for Rose is looking at the role of historically black colleges in black leadership.
Cantwell: So I’m working on a new project that looks at the relationship between historically black colleges and universities, and what I term the redistribution of American political power in regards to race. So looking at how HBCUs have helped African Americans to move into positions of political leadership. And to also consider the extent to which government has played a role in shaping them, and influencing the work that they’ve done over the years.
Cantwell: One of the things that really got me fascinated by this topic is the fact that when doing research for this first book, for The Higher Education Act, I remember poring through the statutes, and finding really interesting discussions. Whenever lawmakers would start getting into higher education and talking about financial aid, there were often times sort of nearby discussions of historically black colleges, and how they are such a valuable national resource that we have to prize and take care of. And I was really wondering, is that actually how we treat them? Have we prized them and taken care of them to the extent that lawmakers have said that we should.
Cantwell: I was also struck by the fact that, I wanna say it’s 80% of all African American judges in the united states have at least one degree from an HVCU. And something like 60% of black lawyers, 50% of black members of congress. I mean these really substantial proportions of African Americans how are involved in roles that are so connected to politics and government, who were trained in historically black colleges.
Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available bi-weekly from the Niskanen Center, and on iTunes. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. Thanks to Deandre Rose and Brendan Cantwell for joining me. Please check out their books, Citizens By Degree and Unequal Higher Education, and then listen in next time.