How Higher Ed Contributes to Inequality

An interview with Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler, author of Degrees of Inequality: How Higher Education Politics Sabotaged the American Dream
Butch Dill/AP Photo

In 2011, Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler highlighted poll results showing a striking phenomenon: About half of the Americans receiving federal assistance in paying college tuition or medical bills believe they have never benefited from a government social program. The results are evidence of what Mettler has termed “the submerged state”—a series of policies, like tuition tax credits or federally-guaranteed student loans, that are practically invisible to citizens. That invisibility, she argues, erodes public support for the very idea of government playing an active role in people’s lives.

Now in a new book, Degrees of Inequality, Mettler reveals how, over the past 60 years, American higher-education policy has gone from being visible and effective (the GI Bill and the Pell grant program) to being invisible and inefficient ($32 billion in federal funding for for-profit colleges with abysmal graduation rates). Congressional polarization along party lines, it turns out, played a major role, as did plummeting federal and state support for four-year public universities.

I spoke with Mettler about why Republicans and reform-minded Democrats switched positions on for-profit colleges; why the liberal arts are underrated and MOOCs (massive open online courses) are overrated; and why corporate lobbyists are able to achieve so much influence in Washington for relatively little money. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

After writing about social policy more generally in your last book, what led you to take on this project about the failures of higher education policy in particular?

In 2005 I completed a book called Soldiers to Citizens, about World War II veterans and their experience of the GI Bill. I was struck by how transformative it was for them, both for their social and economic status and for their political engagement. They became more involved citizens. The nation went on to have several more iterations of the GI bill and then expand student aid to civilians. During that period through the 1970s, we were successfully expanding access to college throughout the income spectrum. What I wanted to know was what happened since then. I was becoming interested in rising economic inequality, and I wanted to know what difference higher education was making.

You portray the four-year college degree as a transformative tool in battling inequality. What do you think of the counterargument that our national debate focuses too much on education as a driver of inequality?

There are so many reasons why we need to increase our percentage of college graduates. We need more people who are highly skilled to try and create the kind of innovation and creativity that leads to greater economic development in all sorts of ways. And then it’ll help to mitigate social inequality. If we have more highly educated people, it will create more civic engagement and political engagement and leadership for American society.

What’s your take on two-year degrees?

People’s job prospects are greater if they have a four-year degree than if they have a two-year degree. That said, getting a two-year degree is certainly better than having a high school degree. We need to do better at both two-years and four-years. Part of the issue is that when people first graduate, there can be an easier segue into the job market for people with a two-year degree who are directed toward a specific job. But over the course of time, the four-year people surpass them.

So we should pay less attention to those studies about how little money liberal arts grads earn in their first year out of college?

With the liberal arts, there’s long-term payoff. By the time you are 40, you are doing much better. As a college professor, I could ruminate on that. There’s been a reframing of higher education in the media in the last few years. The media looks at higher unemployment among college grads and says, ‘Maybe a college degree is not worth it.’ That’s wrong. You’re always better off to try and get more four-year college degree recipients. But then of course, we have to look at what sector of education are people attending? Is it a valuable degree?

Your book suggests that in many cases, people are better off not going to college at all than attending a for-profit college. 13 percent of college students are now enrolled at for-profits, yet they make up nearly 50 percent of student loan defaults. The industry says this is because they take a risk on less well-prepared students. They blame the students themselves when they drop out or fail to get decent jobs. What did your research turn up?

No. That’s an inadequate explanation. To the contrary, there are various scholars who’ve looked at this. As I show in my book, students who grow up high income and have low test scores are about as likely as students who are low income with high test scores to graduate college. What I’m trying to emphasize is the financial part of it. The major reason why students drop out and don’t complete college has to do with finances and with their varied ability to stay enrolled and afford it. That’s true across the board, whatever kind of institution the student is attending.

Presented by

Dana Goldstein is a staff writer at The Marshall Project. She is the author of the forthcoming book The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession.

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