Large gaps separate the haves and have-nots in American higher education, whether talking about students, instructors or institutions. A new book, Unequal Higher Education: Wealth, Status and Student Opportunity (Rutgers University Press), focuses on these gaps and their impact on students.
The authors are Barrett J. Taylor, associate professor of higher education at the University of North Texas; and Brendan Cantwell, associate professor of higher, adult and lifelong education at Michigan State University. They responded via email to questions about their book.
Q: What do you see as the top inequities in American higher education?
A: The greatest inequality in an absolute sense is the distance between what we call the “super-elite” private universities and tuition-dependent “vulnerable” colleges and universities, most of which are also private. While super-elite places may change high tuition prices, they spend even more lavishly. This means that students at super-elite institutions enjoy a large subsidy no matter what they are paying. And the social value enjoyed from the signal of attending a Harvard or Stanford University is enormous. Material resources and cultural practices are tightly linked. By contrast, at vulnerable colleges and universities, students get a small subsidy and sometimes no subsidy at all. This means that few resources are devoted to students’ education. Further, because these campuses tend not to be selective, they offer little social distinction.
That said, we think the most consequential inequality is the gap between where smaller nonselective public colleges and universities used to be and where they are now. At the start of our analysis, virtually no public institutions were classified as vulnerable. By the end of our study period, dozens of public institutions had become vulnerable. For students at these institutions, tuition rose sharply and subsidies fell dramatically. These campuses tend to enroll black and Native students, as well as lower-income students, at rates that are higher than other institutions. When these institutions suffer, so do the students whom they serve. Widening inequalities among public institutions are therefore particularly worrisome for those of us who are interested in inequalities between individuals and communities.
Q: Much attention in the last year has focused on the wealth of the wealthiest universities — think of the endowment tax or the gift to Johns Hopkins University. Is part of the solution to the problems you identify restricting or taxing the funds that go to or are held by the wealthiest colleges?
A: As we discuss below, we think targeted reinvestment by the states into institutions that serve a racially diverse group of students is the best approach to ease inequality. That said, we agree that incentivizing private donors to support institutions whose budgets, assets and operations more closely resemble charities is a good idea, too. Right now, both public and private funds disproportionally flow to institutions that already have the most resources. Taxing the largest endowments or capping the size of individual tax-exempt gifts have both been floated as policy solutions to this problem. But no one benefits if there are fewer resources for higher education. Restricting further accumulation by the wealthiest institutions only helps if the funds then flow to institutions that fulfill their missions but are strapped for resources. Of course, the devil is in the details. Our national habit in higher education has been to make the rich richer and more exclusive. Breaking that habit is hard work.
Q: Your book notes that states fund smaller shares of public colleges’ budgets than was once the norm. You suggest that this be reversed. But do you sense any will among the public to do so?
A: This is a tough question. There is broad public agreement that tuition at public colleges and universities is too high. One way to reduce tuition is to reinvest public dollars in higher education. Yet, according to a survey carried out by American Public Media and the Hechinger Report, large numbers of citizens are unaware that state governments now contribute less to higher education than they once did. By contrast, most people are aware of rising tuition prices. In this context, many people doubt that colleges need more.
Another problem is that raising revenue through taxation is a tough sell politically, especially for voters who favor a Republican Party that has become openly hostile to the use of taxation to provide public services. Pew and other organizations have shown that public trust in higher education is down, especially among Republicans, although people see the benefit of higher education for themselves and their community.
We argue that the best way to generate the political will for reinvestment is to make the case that higher education is good not just for people who graduate, but also for the public as a whole. Right now, higher education is understood transactionally — people go to college to get a job and need a good ROI to make it worth it. We don’t deny that work-force outcomes are important. However, once individuals have extracted those benefits for themselves, it is difficult to convince them to reinvest in a system that supports other people with whom they might compete for jobs. Yet divestment hurts all members of the next generation. Conceiving of higher education as something that benefits the public more broadly might provide a surer basis for reinvestment. Our thinking is influenced by people like Danielle Allen and David Labaree, who identify the civic and intrinsic value of higher education. To make this case, colleges and universities need to do a better job of engaging with the public, explaining what they do and why it matters. Simultaneously, powerful voices — including large foundations and political actors — need to make unapologetic claims for the benefits of higher education. These benefits are social, civic and cultural as well as individual and economic.
Q: Many public flagships have responded to these trends by raising private money and admitting more out-of-state students. How does this exacerbate the inequalities of which you write?
A: There are a couple of ways to think about revenue-seeking behavior on the part of the most visible public universities. One is that these institutions have abandoned their public missions and inadequately serve students from their states. Another is that the states have turned their backs on the universities, and, in order to maintain high quality, flagships have to seek revenue. Both explanations hold a share of the truth. Both also expose the pernicious effects of competition in higher education. To our way of thinking, state divestment prompted campus administrators to generate revenue in other ways, primarily through tuition, and then administrators got a taste for unrestricted revenue and needed ever more to keep up with aspirant peers. But this is just our supposition and requires additional evidence beyond what we supply in Unequal Higher Education. What we can demonstrate is that public flagships never came close to competing with the super-elite private universities, though competition for tuition revenues did widen the gaps between flagships and other public institutions.
Q: The colleges that enroll the largest share of low-income students receive less attention and money than other institutions. What can be done to reverse that?
A: The conventional answer is for all of us — those in higher education and the industry media — to end our obsession with exclusive privates and public flagships, and to start highlighting the contributions of other institutional types. But we think that is only a starting point. Our analysis suggests that what really matters is breaking the cycle of competition. Our preferred approach would involve holding states accountable for targeted reinvestment in the broad-access institutions that enroll large numbers of underserved students, while holding intuitions accountable for mission adherence, which would in most cases involve renewed focus on education and dramatic slowdowns in tuition increases. The basic trade-off is more reliable funding in exchange for somewhat less autonomy, although we see academic freedom and political independence in teaching and research as a red line. Admittedly this is a general framework, not a detailed path to implementation. We think that is appropriate given that the problems of public higher education are often social and political (what kind of system do we want?) rather than technical (how do we create it?). Goals and values matter.
Q: The public appears outraged by the admissions scandal, which shows just how many advantages (even illegal) wealthy families have. Do you think this furor will lead to real change?
A: Probably not. Outrage over the admission scandal is understandable, especially when the rich and powerful seem to hold a sense of absolute entitlement and total disdain for the rest of us. And the scandal maps well onto a wide range of political priors. If you are a right-wing populist, it’s an example of coastal elites rigging the system. If you are a technocratically oriented centrist, it’s an example of a broken admission system. If you are a progressive, it’s an example of the privileged exploiting the trappings of meritocracy to consolidate their advantage. Each of these positions makes a claim about how to ration a few highly desirable seats that are unattainable to the vast majority of students. The analyses we present in Unequal Higher Education suggest that those three approaches do not lead to meaningful change. We think it is simpler, more just and more adequate to the needs of a growing population of college-going students to increase the number of desirable seats by reinvesting in the institutions whose doors are already open to just about every student in the country.