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Of course we can claim, and usually do in academic wool-gathering on the issue, that class and racial inequality start long before the admissions officers get involved. That’s a dodge. We are all connected as interlocking gearwheels in the machinery of injustice. The facts are damning. In the long pathway from kindergarten to good jobs, the most talented disadvantaged students don’t end up doing nearly as well as the least talented advantaged ones. A child from a family in the top quartile of family income and parental education who has low test scores has a 71-percent chance of graduating from college and getting a good job anyway by their late 20s. However, a child from a low-income family but with top test scores has only a 31 percent chance of achieving similar success. The numbers are even worse for talented low-income minority students.
Higher education is the capstone of an educational system that sorts winners from losers and always invests in the winners. It magnifies the inequality dutifully delivered to it by the public-school system and projects it further into labor markets where it creates new waves of advantages that guarantee the intergenerational reproduction of class and racial privilege.
Blaming elementary and secondary schools for this doesn’t cut it. Almost half of all students who graduate in the upper half of their high-school class never get any postsecondary credential, even though they would have almost an 80-percent chance of graduating from one of the top 500 colleges. In fact, if we moved enough advantaged students to the less advantaged colleges to make room for these qualified youth who never get a B.A., the overall graduation rate in the whole postsecondary system would increase with only minor declines in graduation rates in the selective schools.
Merit aid is affirmative action for the mostly white upper middle class.
The future promises nothing but more of the same if no one intervenes. Our racial future is particularly bleak. White workers have staked out a huge advantage in bachelor’s degrees and access to good jobs over the next 30 years. Between 1991 and 2016, the share of white workers who hold bachelor’s degrees rose from 30 percent to 44 percent. Meanwhile, among Black workers, the share of jobs held by workers with bachelor’s and graduate degrees in 2016 was roughly equivalent to the share of jobs held by similarly educated white workers in 1991. The share of Latino
workers who got a B.A. or higher, while doubling over this span, is still a third less than the share held by white workers in 1991.
Wealthier, selective institutions will not escape unscathed. If classes are offered only online in the fall, these colleges won’t be able to provide much of the educational experience they sell at a premium — the campus amenities, the residential living experience, the chance to interact with leading scholars and similarly prepared peers. But the attraction to the brand-name institutions will endure, and these colleges will recover far more quickly than others.
Coming changes in the makeup of college students may work for these colleges: In his book, Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, Nathan D. Grawe forecasts that the share of students from families in which both parents have a B.A. will rise by 7 percentage points by 2029. As a result, about 30 percent of all college enrollees will be from these families with high expectations, large joint bank accounts, and a thirst for elite colleges.
At less selective yet expensive colleges, some students will look up from their laptops and realize that they are being taught by the same adjunct instructors who teach their siblings or peers at institutions where the tuition is much lower, triggering buyer’s remorse. These colleges’ efforts to sell high-priced education largely as signifiers of status will be less successful so long as dour economic predictions and stock-market uncertainty have even prosperous families hunting for bargains.
Budgets that made sense in January now seem useless given the projected evaporation of revenue. Money derived by athletics programs that pack arenas and stadiums? Gone. Revenue from full dormitories and busy campus bookstores? Forget it. Those full-tuition-paying foreign students who had become an increasingly large segment of enrollments and important income source? Don’t expect to see them anytime soon.
There’s good reason why Moody’s Investors Service has downgraded its outlook for higher education to negative. More than nine in 10 college presidents responding to a recent survey expressed concern over their institutions’ ability to weather the pandemic’s economic impact. Public colleges teeter on the edge of a precipice. Their appropriations are certain to be slashed by lawmakers who see higher-education spending as discretionary, and inevitably raid funds previously earmarked for colleges to keep other public services funded in times of declining tax revenues.
Even before the pandemic hit, Robert Zemsky, of the University of Pennsylvania, had predicted as a co-author of The College Stress Test that about 100 of the nation’s 1,000 private liberal-arts colleges would close within five years. Upon surveying the economic devastation caused by the pandemic, he told The Wall Street Journal that number could be twice as high. Grawe pointed out in his book that, starting in 2026, the number of college-age residents in the United States will plunge almost 15 percent over a period of just five years. The only areas where the college-age population will grow, the South and West, have historically had lower college-going rates than the rest of the country. In addition, a larger percentage of the college-going population will come from working-class homes and minority families, which also have had comparatively lower college-enrollment rates.
Many colleges will try to get by the Covid-19 shock using the same time-worn tactics they resorted to in surviving past downturns. They will, for example, slash spending on instruction, and scale back the support services that many disadvantaged students need. They will offer less need-based student aid, pricing themselves out of the reach of a larger share of young people whose inability to contribute much to institutions’ bottom lines will have some administrators quietly thinking good riddance. They will jettison a large share of noninstructional staff, compounding the economic suffering and division of their own communities as maintenance and clerical workers go from scraping by on low wages to joining the ranks of the unemployed.
Selective colleges seem likely to double down on their efforts to woo the children of wealthy families. They may show even more favoritism toward applicants from privileged backgrounds and entice them to enroll by offering them tuition discounts with money that could have gone to students who actually needed it.
The dire economic situation leaves colleges no choice but to take at least some of these steps. But if colleges focus solely on self-interest and short-term survival, our system — and our society — will end up worse off, more socio-economically divided, and even more vulnerable to future crises than before.
Consider where following this same path has gotten us so far:
- Class and race play outsize roles in determining who earns at least a bachelor’s degree or lands a good job. Having at least a bachelor’s degree provides access to such work, but just 14 percent of students from the nation’s lowest socioeconomic quartile had earned bachelor’s degrees by their eighth year out of high school. Among students from the top socioeconomic quartile, by contrast, 61 percent had earned one.
- The large gap between whites, Blacks, and Latinos in degree attainment is stark and unchanging. Nearly a third of whites with high standardized-test scores, but only a fifth of Blacks and Latinos with comparable scores, enroll at selective institutions. Whites are substantially overrepresented in academe’s most selective tiers and under-represented at open-access institutions. Blacks are the most underrepresented population at selective public colleges, where they account for only about 7 percent of enrollment, even though they make up 16 percent of those ages 18-24.
- The class-based segregation between the various tiers of college selectivity is even starker. At the 146 most selective colleges, students from the least-advantaged quarter of American society, in terms of parental income and education, account for just 3 percent of enrollment. Students from the most advantaged quarter of American society account for about three-fourths of enrollment.
- We fund the education of selective-college students who come mainly from advantaged backgrounds far more generously than we fund the education of students at the open-access public colleges that tend to serve those with the highest need. Open-access public colleges, which educate 55 percent of students who attend public institutions, receive less than half as much in state appropriations as the more prestigious public colleges that educate only 21 percent of public college-goers.
- Many of the institutions we most count on to offer people a shot at upward social mobility are failing at the task. A 2017 analysis by the New America think tank found that since the 1990s, nearly two-thirds of selective public universities had reduced their share of students from families with incomes in the bottom 40 percent. Two-thirds had increased the share of students they enroll from families in the top 20 percent in terms of income, and at more than half of them, the increase in enrollments of affluent students came at the direct expense of those from low-income families.
College leaders — supporting in principle but resisting in practice calls to reform higher education and rectify these disparities — argue that they have no choice but to keep doing things the same way if they are to compete in an unforgiving market. That argument no longer carries water, if it ever did.
The perception of educational merit that colleges have built and reinforced has become a fig leaf for deep-seated racism and class-based elitism.
We need to set out on a new course that connects higher education to high schools and labor markets and provides transparency and accountability.
In using public money to bail out colleges and help keep them afloat, we should reroute a much larger share of higher-education expenditures toward ensuring that all Americans, regardless of family wealth, stand a good chance of getting the education they need to be financially independent and engaged citizens.
We must stop heavily subsidizing the wealthy’s consumption of elite higher education as a luxury good, and redirect tax dollars toward the nonselective two-year and four-year colleges that do the heavy lifting when it comes to preparing a work force and lifting people out of poverty.
We need to ensure that financial aid goes to the low-income students who need it the most. Selective colleges use far too much merit-based aid to offer tuition discounts to the well-heeled. Merit aid is affirmative action for the mostly white upper-middle class. Federal and state governments can curb such behavior through stipulations in bail-out bills and other tax-dollar appropriations requiring them to enroll more low-income students and be more transparent about where aid dollars go. Having access to such information will enable foundations and individuals to direct donations toward those colleges that help the needy the most.
We should require all colleges to have enrollments consisting of at least 20 percent Pell Grant recipients, which would bring about the admission of 72,000 additional qualified Pell students to high-spending selective colleges, where they’d make enrollments more diverse and have a much better chance of graduating than at nonselective institutions.
Finally, we should stop giving so much weight to standardized-test scores in admissions. They are part of an educational shell game that hides class and race inequality under a scientific veneer. They measure privilege far more reliably than they measure ability to graduate. As this spring’s annual administration of the tests was thrown into the air by social-distancing, we learned the lesson that colleges actually can judge applicants without assigning heavy weight to such test scores. In place of the SAT and ACT, we need to switch to diagnostic testing that ties tests to teaching and learning, rather than sorting students by race and class.
These changes would help to ensure that the chase for prestige is no longer the only animating force in higher education. We could move away from competition based on inputs and shift to evaluating colleges based on outcomes, such as completion, learning, and earning. We could reward student “strivers” — those who have greater academic achievements than would be expected given their family income and the quality of their K-12 instruction. We can shift the structure of higher-education governance and funding to the program level to encourage true transparency and accountability, thereby enhancing competition and cost reduction.
More will depend on the spirit than the content of these reforms. We need to be mindful that meaningful reform will only come when we get beyond the merit myth that justifies the pious elitism at the core of our higher-education system. Higher education pretends to connect merit with opportunity, but it in fact serves to preserve or compound the advantages or disadvantages that people had as children. It causes as much as it cures of what ails this nation, including widening income gaps and social divisions. The perception of educational merit that colleges have built and reinforced has become a fig leaf for deep-seated racism and class-based elitism. It is the armor for a permanent new class of the well-educated, well-paid, and powerful.
Covid-19 and the economic and demographic changes that will follow, left to themselves, will only deepen inequality. But new realities can be an occasion for new choices. The options are clear: We can double down on the merit myth or make our colleges true instruments of upward mobility.