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Great Unequalizer: Is Higher-Education Policy Making Inequality Worse?

A new book argues that America's higher education system deepens inequality and further disadvantages those who need it most.
In this April 28, 2014 photo, a student walks through the Hallene Gateway, a landmark on the University of Illinois campus in Urbana, Ill. David Mercer / AP

For 20 years, Suzanne Mettler, Ph.D., has been writing about U.S. government policies that help to build the middle class. She’s written about the G.I. Bill, which provided housing assistance and student aid to returning World War II soldiers and secured decades of upward mobility and economic security. She’s written about government safety net programs that get little attention but create an economic cushion for millions of Americans.

Now Mettler, a professor of government at Cornell University, has taken on education policy. But in her new book, Degrees of Inequality: How Higher Education Politics Sabotaged the American Dream, Mettler paints a picture of a system that actually deepens inequality and further disadvantages those at the bottom of the American economy.

In your book you argue that higher education no longer functions to provide equal access to opportunity in the United States, effectively to be, as Horace Mann called it, “the great equalizer.” Can you talk about how we got here?

Traditionally, for most of American history, higher education was something that was limited to people who’d grown up in very privileged backgrounds. But in the middle of the 20th century, with the creation of public programs including the G.I. Bill in 1944, and Pell Grants in 1972, we created a different system. These federal student aid policies helped to provide greater access to education and opportunity to people who came from low- to middle-income backgrounds. At the same time, states were investing more than ever in their public universities and colleges. So higher education had become a ladder to opportunity.

As we’ve seen rising economic inequality in the United States, I wanted to know if higher education was still playing that equalizing role. What I found is that if you look at who actually graduates by age 24 with a college degree, it is predominantly people who come from the upper quarter of the income spectrum. What we are doing now is making college a real right of passage for people who come from a privileged background. For everyone else, graduation rates are poor.

It’s one thing to say that public policies no longer provide pathways to opportunity for low-income students, but you say that education policy is actually making inequality worse; that the very programs that we imagine function as pathways to the middle-class are actually entrenching poverty and inequality. How does this work?

When you look at state and federal policy, and if you stand back from the body of education programs, we see that at the federal level we’re spending more than ever on student aid. But we also see that a lot of our new forms of spending help families in which the kids would be going to college anyway. Take the American Opportunity Tax Credit, a part of the tax code, which is a big piece of education policy. That tax credit actually goes mostly to families who are just below the income cap of $180,000 in household income. So that’s an extra perk for those families for sure, but it’s not going to expand who goes to college.

At the same time, [higher education] costs have grown dramatically over time, and the funds and programs that still exist don’t go as far as they once did. The purchasing power of Pell grants has dropped dramatically. In the 1970s when they were created, they covered nearly 80 percent of the cost of tuition and room and board for an average public, four-year university. Today they cover just over 30 percent.

You also write about for-profit colleges and universities—like Phoenix University and Kaplan—which are a growing part of higher education in the United States.

Yes, we’re now spending one quarter of federal student aid dollars on for-profit colleges (though only one in 10 students attend these schools). And these schools have a very poor record in serving students. And they serve predominantly low-income students. These are exactly the people we’d like to see succeeding in getting a college degree. Yet the graduation rates are 22 percent on average in these schools. Nearly all students who attend borrow large amounts in student loans and if they start and don’t finish, which is endemic in these schools, or they get a degree that’s not respected by employers and they can’t get a job, those students actually end up worse than if they never went to college in the first place.

We’re not investing in the economy as we should, we’re not graduating the large numbers of college graduates that we should have for innovation and creativity for the future, and we’re not creating the civic leadership for the future that we need.

You write that the failures of American education policy to support access to quality education has helped to build something like a caste system in the U.S. You mean that people are locked in?

The great national ideal we have, the American Dream if you will, that if you work hard and want to learn and devote yourself to education you can get ahead, is widely prized and embraced by Americans across the income spectrum. But what’s tragic is that those from low- to middle-income backgrounds who want to pursue it, it’s not working out well for them.

It ends up being a system that’s divided in socio-economic terms—the income group people grew up in. It is simultaneously reinforcing racial disparities. If you look at who goes to for-profit colleges, they are majority minority institutions. Black and Hispanic students tend to be left behind by the public universities and colleges that have been struggling so much because the funds have been cut back.

What has changed for an 18-year-old today, versus an 18-year-old in the 1970s or a soldier coming back from World War II?

An 18-year-old today is more likely to both graduate from high school and enroll in college than they were in the 1970s. So far, so good. But they are only barely more likely to end up with a bachelor’s degree. In 1970, 6 percent of people from the lowest income group ended up with a bachelor’s degree and now it’s just 10 percent. So it’s not that much better.

When I wrote my book on the G.I. Bill, I interviewed all of these men who were at that time in the 70s. They told me how this federal public policy had transformed their own lives, and because it had transformed their lives, it led to very different outcomes for their children and grandchildren, who went on to college because they had had that opportunity. I look at young people today who might’ve grown up in the same kind of background as those veterans--poor with no hope of education. When I look at the same people in our society today with the same aspirations, I think they have the same commitment and will to try to better their lives that those veterans did, but they are not getting the same help from us as a society in doing so.

This interview has been edited.