Higher Ed, Income Inequality & the American Economy (Part 1)

How the challenges facing colleges link to the broader context of 21st century America

Almost every week for the past two years, I have been posting opinion pieces to this blog that relate to the current issues and challenges facing higher education nationally, and that provide details about the solutions we have been developing and implementing at Roger Williams University. I have tried to call things as I see them. Where I felt it fair and appropriate, I have not been shy about being critical of higher education in general, and the practices at some campuses in particular.

At the same time, I have endeavored to place the issues facing higher education in the broader context of 21st century America: not every problem that involves higher education can be fairly attributed to the actions of our colleges and universities, and not every problem that involves higher education can be solved by higher education, either as individual campuses or in the collective.

A case in point is the topic that occupied six successive postings to this blog over the past few weeks: Is higher education worth it? That particular phrase has been the actual title of articles and opinion pieces in print, online and on-air media for at least the past two years – a remarkable situation because, as I said in an earlier posting, questioning the worth of a bachelor’s degree would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Yes, it’s true that higher education has been its own worst enemy on this issue, having totally muddied public understanding regarding the actual cost of a college degree: most colleges raise their prices annually, and then offset them to varying degrees by using a completely opaque system for dispensing institutional financial aid. But as I have showed in previous blog posts, there is demonstrable – and I think irrefutable – evidence proving that, in general, the economic value of investing in a bachelor’s degree is not only very substantial but also has never been greater.

So why, then, do the media continue to question the economic worth of a college degree? Is there something else going on here – something perhaps a bit more nefarious? I am by no means a fan of conspiracy theories, and I’m not yet prepared to accept that there is an actual conspiracy involving this issue – but there is clearly more to the story than just the confusion brought on by the pricing policies of institutions of higher education.

Consider two conflicting narratives that attempt to explain the cause of the doldrums in which the American economy continues to find itself:

  1. Education is the great economic leveler. If more people had more and better education, our economy would be in great shape, and we wouldn’t be worrying about economic inequality.
  2. All of the growth in income and wealth in recent years has gone to the top 10 percent of the population (and especially to the top one percent), and everyone else has suffered economically. The recent rising tide of prosperity only lifted a few boats, and all of them were yachts*. More people with more education would change nothing. We have to find a way to redistribute accumulated wealth.

There is evidence supporting both of these beliefs – but it is important for us to understand the nature of that evidence if we are ever going to develop policies that will lead us, as a society, to a rise in prosperity that is more broadly shared.

Next week: Part 2 – Improving the Economy through More and Better Education.


I have just realized that I inadvertently 'borrowed' the reference to rising tide and yachts from a very similar line in a column by NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof.  While it was inadvertent on my part, I nevertheless want to apologize to Mr. Kristof, and to the readers of this blog, for having failed to credit him properly at the time.