Campus reflection

That’s the mild pun the Chronicle of Higher Education picked for my article (paywalled, but I’ve put my draft version over the fold) making the point that a higher education system is, in important respects, a mirror of the society that created it, and that it helps to recreate. I make the point that, like the US health system and labor market, the US higher education does a great job for the 1 per cent who go to the Ivy League Schools (and whose parents are mostly in or close to the top 1 per cent of the income distribution), does an adequate but expensive job for the next 20 per cent or so, and leaves everyone else in the lurch.

This is important in the context of the Abbott governments proposed removal of caps on fees for higher education, explicitly aimed by Education Minister Pyne at creating a system in which we might have institutions like Harvard and Yale. I plan to write more on this, but the central point will be that, far from creating more places at existing universities, fee deregulation will give them incentives to shrink, pushing students out to the alternatives now being funded under HECS: for-profit institutions and the TAFE system (which has its own funding crisis), corresponding to the bottom tiers of the US education system, where all the recent growth has taken place.


Discussion of the various crises in US higher education seems like mass of irreconcilable contradictions. 
On the one hand, commentators inveigh against the soaring cost of tuition at elite universities, driven by wasteful luxury, with climbing walls as the invariable example of unjustified success. On the other hand, prospective students and their parents despair over the incredibly competitive admission process to those same colleges, beginning with securing entry to the right pre-school, and proceeding through an adolescence filled with resume-burnishing activities, culminating in the all-important personal essay.
Similar contradictions emerge for the system as a whole.  Official and unofficial reports bemoan inadequate college graduation rates, and shortages in vital skills like science and engineering. At the same time, employment options for graduates are so bad that intending students are told ‘going to college is the worst decision you can possibly make’.
But the whole picture becomes much clearer when you keep one simple fact in mind. Universities are a mirror of the society they serve. The growth of inequality and entrenched privilege in US society as a whole (also evident, but less extreme, in other English-speaking countries) is mirrored by the higher education sector. 
At the top, things have never been better, either for the institutions or the students who attend them. For the middle class, what was once a safe route to ensure that children did at least as well as their parents is now a high-stakes gamble, staking massive student debt against the prospect of entry to the professional classes who make up the top 20 per cent of income earners.  Compared to the past, the odds are bad enough that the wisdom of going to college has been widely questioned. 
But, even if going to college is now a much less attractive option than it was, the alternative is far worse. Real wages for men with only a high school diploma are lower now than they were in 1970, and the chance of holding a job is much lower. Combining these two factors, earnings for the median man with a high school diploma and no further schooling fell by 41 percent from 1970 to 2010. 

Women did a bit better in the early part of this period, but are now experiencing similar trends. A truly alarming finding is that, for white women with only high school education, life expectancy has actually declined, by as much as five years between 1990 and 2008.

All of these trends are reflected in the mirror of the higher education sector.
Starting at the top, we have the 1 per cent, in this case the Ivy League, along with Stanford, Chicago and the elite liberal arts colleges. These institutions educate 1 per cent of the college-age population, but account for more than 17 per cent of all endowment income,
and produce a similarly disproportionate share of the corporate and political elite.

Unsurprisingly, these top 1 per cent institutions are largely devoted to reproducing the top 1 per cent of the broader society. The system of legacy admissions, along with favorable treatment for the offspring of donors ensures that the children of the 1 per cent are massively over-represented among Ivy League enrolments.  Legacy status gives fortunate applicants the equivalent of an additional 160 points on the former 1,600 point SAT scale.

That’s a big advantage, but not an insuperable one. A bright kid whose parents are in the top 20 per cent of the income distribution has a shot at getting into the Ivy League, even without legacy status. And just about everyone in the upper income bracket who has a chance goes for it. Unsurprisingly, applications massively outnumber admissions. Harvard now accepts less than 6 per cent of applicants, and rates are only marginally higher for the other elite schools.

Given the intensity of the competition, and the advantages of having educated and wealthy parents, it’s unsurprising that the 80/20 rule applies. 70 to 80 per cent of the students at Harvard and other elite universities come from the top 20 per cent of the income distribution. With a base like this, it’s easy to allocate the remaining places, at minimal or low tuition, to diversity and the spurious promise of a ‘needs-blind’ admissions policy.

Click to access ff0615S.pdf

And, given the clientele, there’s nothing surprising about the proliferation of luxury dorms and athletic facilities. The incomes of the top quintile have risen steadily over recent decades, and those of the top 1 per cent have risen spectactularly. Unsurprisingly, they see no reason for their children to endure the relatively spartan living conditions that once characterized student life even in elite schools. And they have no real objection to universities paying big money to elite academics and senior managers. The resulting tuition costs help to tilt the balance against middle-class families, not rich enough to pay, but too well-off to qualify for full financial aid.

One step down the scale are the state flagships, epitomized by the UC system. Under the famous 1960 Master plan, the top 12.5 per cent of Californian high school graduates were guaranteed a place in one of the flagships UC system schools, the top third would be able to enter the California State University and the community colleges would accept all applications. All were tuition free, and it was possible, at least in principle, to make the transition from lower to higher tiers.

At the time, the plan was revolutionary. The flagships offered enough places that students from almost any background, given ability and determination, could get in, and produced enough graduates to meet the demand for workers in professional and managerial occupations. Even more striking was the idea that everyone, no matter what their family background or how well they had done at high school, should have a shot at higher education and the social mobility it generated.

Fifty years late, the Master Plan is being reassessed in the light of new social realities. The flagships have responded to decades of cuts in state funding by transforming themselves into quasi-private institutions, relying heavily on private philanthropy and tuition fees from international and out-of-state students. Californian students, who make up a declining proportion of a shrinking student population, have faced huge increases in tuition, despite declining expenditures per student.

Similar processes have worked themselves out in the second-tier state university system. Although barely mentioned in many discussions of higher education (since most of the participants in these discussions were educated at private institutions or state flagships), non-research intensive state universities represent the core of US higher education. Where they perform well, they represent a high-quality, lower cost alternative to the research-intensive flagships.  Where they perform badly, they are disaster areas, with as few as 1 per cent of students graduating in the standard four years.
Even allowing six years, a large number of state universities graduate less than 25 per cent of their students.
Most students who attend these institutions take on high debt and get little or nothing in return.  Steadily shrinking funding has produced more disasters, and compromised quality even at the best of these institutions.

At the bottom of the status hierarchy, there are the community colleges. These two-year institutions have accounted for most of the growth in post-secondary education in recent years. They cater mainly to the lower middle-class, for whom education was once the route to upward social mobility. These institutions are failing badly. In, Divided We Fail, Colleen Moore and Nancy Shulock found that six years after initial enrolment only about a third of California community college students have completed a degree, about half have dropped out, and around 15 per cent are still enrolled (national studies paint a similar picture).
Finally, of course, there is the option of not going to college at all. In the mid-20th century, this wasn’t a bad choice. Unionized blue-collar workers could make a middle-class income, and look forward to the same or better for their children. In the 21st century, entering the workforce with only a high school diploma (or worse, without one) is a virtual guarantee of poverty and unemployment, with the prospect that your children, and theirs, will be trapped at the bottom of an increasingly rigid social hierarchy.

To some extent, this gloomy picture is the result of policy choices specific to higher education. A reversal of the decades of expenditure cuts would do a lot to restore access to high-quality education for the children of the middle class and working class. And elite institutions could pay more attention to economic diversity among their students, particularly by scrapping legacy admissions.

But changes like these will have only marginal effects if the trend towards entrenched inequality continues. Whatever political efforts might be made within higher education, the 1 per cent will find ways to push their children to the front of the queue, while the poor will, for the most part, never even get to apply. 

54 thoughts on “Campus reflection

  1. I think the Treasurer is right to come down on student activists protesting five figure fees though. Militant louts, they are.

    For example, just watching a clip of a dastardly invasion of a politicians office to protest a $250 pa fee back in 1987. This followed by an interview with one of these whining ingrates.I thought after wards, ” what becomes of such disruptive folk..

  2. Yes, bravo, Ernestine. Especially this:

    None of this necessitates student loans. It is a financing problem under uncertainty, which can be solved via progressive income tax.

    It is driving me crazy that progressive income tax is being ignored in the national conversation. Even people who ought to know better, like Labor ex-premier John Brumby, are talking exclusively in terms of raising or extending the GST.

  3. @Helen
    My reaction to what I saw of Brumby’s comment was that it was actually political – he was trying to make Abbott look bad and also scare people leading up to the Victorian state election. Fair enough I think.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s