Nick Clegg’s Attack on Social Segregation in Higher Education

Earlier this week, British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg argued that universities in England were instruments of “social segregation,” and suggested that they “throw open the doors…to more bright students from disadvantaged backgrounds.” Clegg declared, “We must ensure that our great universities—often the gateway to the professions—make active and measurable progress to widen participation and advance social mobility.”

British Business Secretary Vince Cable ordered a government watchdog, the Director of Fair Access, to set targets for students from public (“state”) schools, who are now greatly under-represented at selective colleges compared with private school populations. The plan comes amidst criticism of the Liberal Party for going along with increased tuition fees at British universities.

Conservatives attacked Clegg for backing “quotas” and “social engineering,” and said admissions decisions should be based strictly on “academic merit.” But backers of the plan suggest that it is more meritocratic to consider economic disadvantages alongside grades and test scores rather than raw scores in isolation. As I noted in a recent blog post, the argument is supported by new British research which finds that public school students with lower entrance exam grades performed as well in college as private school students with higher entrance exam grades.

What is particularly striking to me about Clegg’s initiative is that to my knowledge, no American president or vice president or education secretary has ever made a similar high-profile case for more economic diversity in America’s selective colleges. Why might that be true?

* One possibility is that America’s universities don’t have the same problem of economic segregation that British universities have. The British, after all, have a legacy of aristocracy and Oxford and Cambridge have notoriously low numbers of low-income students. But in fact, American universities are hardly paragons of social mobility. At the most selective 146 institutions, a 2004 Century Foundation study found, students in the top socioeconomic quartile made up 74 percent of the population, and those from the bottom quarter just 3 percent.

* A second possibility is that the British system is more heavily public (even Oxford and Cambridge are now public institutions), so the government has a stronger say over admissions. But three-quarters of American college students attend public institutions, and even those thought of as private are quasi-public. As Peter Sacks notes, nonprofit private universities and colleges receive billions of dollars in tax preferences on the theory that they serve the “public interest” and when admissions policies exclude large segments of the population, higher education institutions need to be held accountable.

* A third possibility is that Clegg’s idea—giving a leg up in admissions to hard-working and talented students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds—is more politically viable in England than the United States. But public polling has long shown that while racial preferences are unpopular, preferences for low-income applicants of all races are broadly supported by a 2:1 margin.

* The biggest difference probably comes down to culture and leadership. The British are comfortable talking about class distinctions, and Clegg was willing to speak out boldly. It probably didn’t hurt that Clegg and the Liberal Party he leads are taking heat from the left for agreeing to increase student fees. But whatever his motivation, the call for diversifying higher education by economic status—particularly at elite institutions—stands in stunning contrast to the silence of U.S. government leaders.

Why have we allowed the British, who are known for their aristocratic history, to lead Americans in making universities more democratic?

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