The Chronicle Review

Has Higher Education Become an Engine of Inequality?

Chronicle illustration by Ellen Winkler and Robert McGrath

July 02, 2012

Has Higher Education Become an Engine of Inequality?

Inequality is growing in the United States, and social mobility is slowing. A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 62 percent of Americans raised in the top one-fifth of the income scale stay in the top two-fifths; 65 percent born in the bottom fifth stay in the bottom two-fifths.

Education, long praised as the great equalizer, no longer seems to be performing as advertised. A study by Stanford University shows that the gap in standardized-test scores between low-income and high-income students has widened about 40 percent since the 1960s—now double that between black and white students. A study from the University of Michigan found that the disparity in college-completion rates between rich and poor students has grown by about 50 percent since the 1980s.

What role has higher education played in society’s stratification? Are colleges and universities contributing to economic inequality and the decline of social mobility?

The Chronicle asked a group of noted observers and researchers to respond.

Magnifying Social Inequality
Richard D. Kahlenberg

The Problem is Elsewhere
George Leef

Social Life and Social Inequality
Laura Hamilton and Elizabeth A. Armstrong

Fading Glory Days
Richard Wolin

The Great Sorting
Anthony P. Carnevale

The Role of Elite Institutions
William Julius Wilson

Growing Elitism
Thomas J. Espenshade

Equity and Community Colleges
Thomas R. Bailey

Renewing the Commitment
Sara Goldrick-Rab

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