On universities and social mobility

Readers interested in higher education might take a look at the recent article by Andrew Delbanco in the New York Review of Books, Our Universities: The Outrageous Reality. One of its major points is that higher education may not be the locus of social opportunity it is supposed to be – in fact, it may be entrenching or even widening social inequality. This retrenchment of the haves and have-nots, like implicit racism, operates on a range of levels, many of which are subtle and complex.

At the top of the prestige pyramid, in highly selective colleges like those of the Ivy League, students from the bottom income quartile in our society make up around 5 percent of the enrollments. This meager figure is often explained as the consequence of a regrettable reality: qualified students from disadvantaged backgrounds simply do not exist in significant numbers. But it’s not so. A recent study by Caroline Hoxby of Stanford and Christopher Avery of Harvard shows that the great majority of high-achieving low-income students (those scoring at or above the ninetieth percentile on standardized tests, and with high school grades of A- or higher) never apply to any selective college, much less to several, as their better-off peers typically do.3 Their numbers, which Hoxby and Avery estimate at between 25,000 and 35,000 of each year’s high school seniors, “are much greater than college admissions staff generally believe,” in part because most such students get little if any counseling in high school about the intricate process of applying to a selective college—so they rarely do.

In short, students from low-income backgrounds or even middle-income backgrounds in which most people haven’t attended college are not getting the help they need to “play the game” of college admissions. It goes far beyond admissions, as my own teaching experiences have shown me. There is a massive gulf – not necessarily in capability but in immediate capacity – between students who have been taught to study and learn in an educational setting and those who haven’t – even though the latter group have often found themselves at Berkeley through grit and determination, that grit isn’t enough to spontaneously create the type of learning skills which are needed in a college environment. Those skills must be taught, and learned, and struggled with.

(On a side note, I often make “learning to learn” a main feature of my teaching curriculum, which actually really annoys the students who have already been taught study skills and success strategies and so forth – although, of course, there’s always something new they can try. But with this annoyance comes the sense of entitlement – the assumption that everyone in the class knows how to make mind maps, or read strategically, because at some point they have had that opportunity – ie. the students who get most annoyed by spending time on learning skills are the ones who think the entire lesson plan should be suited to their needs exclusively. This is a different kind of teachable moment.)

But if there are problems in the private sector, by far the biggest driver of rising tuition has been the lack of economic investment in public institutions. Between 1998 and 2008, tuition rose at four-year private colleges by 33 percent, while at four-year public universities it climbed by 54 percent—a divergence that widened with the Great Recession. And this has happened at a time when most Americans have experienced wage stagnation.

To make matters worse, the trend in dispensing financial aid—both by the states and by colleges themselves—has been moving away from calculations of need toward assessments of “merit” as demonstrated by test scores, extracurricular activities, and the like.17 Since low-income students are often saddled with family responsibilities and summer and term-time jobs, they tend to have fewer opportunities than their more affluent peers for the sort of entrepreneurship, volunteer work, or studies abroad that may impress admissions officers.

Delbanco doesn’t mention the connection between family income, access to unpaid “entry” labor such as internships, and other opportunities which crowd out poorer students once they are trying to transition into the labor market. When I was in college, I was on a generous financial aid package, I worked half-time, and I volunteered in addition to my full time coursework. If I had had to pay full rent, if I had had to support a child or another family member – in short, if I hadn’t been able to fully focus on my plans for the future – I wouldn’t have been able to do all the things that I did. And I still wasn’t able to accept opportunities like internships at the UN, or travel abroad, or the many other things that my friends did – friends whose parents paid for rent, plane fare, and language lessons. I did an awful lot with what I had, but that was facilitated by many levels of my own privilege. And this is only talking about undergraduate education – Grad School is a whole other can’o’entitlement.

The point is, the university system as it exists may not be failing the students it serves, but it is failing to serve the majority of the students who could use an education.

In short, the United States has a serious structural problem: the cost of college is rising faster than public, institutional, or, for most Americans, personal resources available to meet it. One ominous sign is that Hispanics and African-Americans, especially young men, are lagging badly behind whites in educational attainment. (see Figure 2 below) If these problems are not addressed, we are likely to become, if we are not already, what Mettler calls “a society with caste-like characteristics.”

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