Do Colleges Enhance or Impede Social Mobility?

And who cares what the answer is?

There is no shortage of commentary regarding the problems of higher education. Too often, however, the wrong people are in the conversation. It’s a waste of time to attempt to convince people of the righteousness of your position if the people to whom you are speaking already agree with you – and if your arguments aren’t precise, you can actually do your cause damage by providing the other side with free ammunition.

By way of example, Suzanne Mettler, a professor of government at Cornell University, has recently written a book with the provocative title of Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream. Essays drawn from the book appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education on March 7, The New York Times on March 1, and a news article on the book was in the Epoch Times on March 31.

In these essays, Dr. Mettler covers some familiar ground: state appropriations to higher education have fallen; the federal government has focused much more on providing loans than on increasing the value of Pell Grants; for-profit institutions suck up a disproportionate amount of federal aid dollars, but students in those institutions have low graduation rates, high indebtedness and a very high default rate on their loans; low-income families are far more impacted by all the above than are high-income families.

Dr. Mettler suggests three remedies: increase the size of Pell Grants, possibly by reconsidering tuition tax policies that currently favor higher-income families, but do little to help low-income families; put pressure on the states to increase their support of public institutions; and put the squeeze on for-profit institutions with poor performance records. In other words, pretty standard fare – and others have made the same recommendations, with no discernible result as of yet.

Unfortunately, she weakens her own case with some odd, and sometimes erroneous, statements. For example:

  • In her Chronicle essay, Dr. Mettler states, “In fact, few students who attend elite private nonprofit colleges and flagship public universities – which advertise high sticker prices – pay full fare.” Well, first it’s strange that she should put “elite privates,” with sticker prices around $60,000, with “flagship publics,” priced at less than half that amount, in the same sentence. Second, at many of the elite privates, more than half the students (not “a few”) pay full price – including students at her own university, Cornell. Indeed, students from the very richest segment of society are the dominant bloc at the Ivy League schools – the elite of the elite.
  • In the same essay, she suggests that the federal government should “penalize” private nonprofit colleges “that make limited efforts…to enroll and graduate high percentages of low-income students,” claiming that these schools “use funds from their endowments to offer merit aid to students with high test scores – a strategy that… tends to favor the well-off.” I wonder if Dr. Mettler is aware that the mean endowment at private schools is only about $20 million, and that by far the bulk of institutional aid at private colleges comes from discounting the sticker price, as opposed to endowment drawdown. Her suggestion that private schools are somehow conspiring to restrict access to low-income students is, in large measure, untrue – except of course for the very wealthy privates, including Cornell, which announced last year it was converting some of its institutional grants to loans (that of course have to be repaid). (For more on that topic, see my blog post from last year, Down the Up Staircase, March 2013.)
  • In her Times essay, Dr. Mettler first praises public universities and colleges (“[they] still offer the best bargain around…”), and then condemns them for squeezing resources (“For poorer students, graduating becomes all the harder as class sizes grow, online courses proliferate and support services are cut”). Actually, many public universities are now more expensive for out-of-state students than are most private schools. (For example, the University of Virginia charges out-of-state students a staggering $39,844 in tuition and fees – yet it still manages to attract 25 percent of its undergraduates from out-of-state). And while all students (not just “poorer” students) would be affected by the changes that Dr. Mettler presumes public schools must make in the face of reduced resources, she offers no data to show that graduation rates for low-income students are either disproportionately falling at these schools, or even that they are falling at all.

So why am I being so mean and picky with Dr. Mettler’s essays? She makes many good points, she writes in a compelling way, she’s (mostly) on the side of the angels – what’s the problem?

Dr. Mettler is taking on a huge quest: how do we go about changing the direction of higher education in this country (and its concomitant effects on social inequity)? How do we somehow recapture the belief that has long existed in this country that education is the first (and increasingly necessary) step up the ladder to social mobility? She points out that prominent Americans from Franklin and Jefferson (who were instrumental in the founding of two universities) to Eisenhower and Nixon (who introduced landmark higher education laws) were staunch advocates of the virtues of higher education.

For the last 30 years, a different mindset has prevailed in Washington and in many of the states – and the political polarization that has accompanied this mindset is well entrenched and will be difficult to move. For that reason, arguments in favor of higher education must not only be persuasive, but also grounded on hard evidence. Our opponents will seize upon any missteps, and therefore we must be careful not to make any.

Finally, Dr. Mettler’s central thesis is that the consequences of actions and (especially) inaction over the past three decades is that higher education “…has gone from facilitating upward mobility to exacerbating social inequality.” That’s a rallying cry for liberals, but falls on deaf ears with conservatives. Change in higher education will come, I believe, from a series of pragmatic steps that address cost, debt and jobs in meaningful ways, and not from a moral or ethical appeal.

It is easy to preach to the choir – but they are not the ones who need convincing.