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.

At the for-profits, the graduation rates are 22 percent. We know schools with more low-income students are going to have lower graduation rates. Studies control for that factor and still find particularly low graduation rates at the for-profits. They don’t have student support services and they don’t emphasize learning. They charge very high tuition. You could get the same kind of degree at a community college or four-year public for a much lower cost.

As recently as the George H.W. Bush administration, prominent Republican leaders saw the for-profit trend as allowing low-quality colleges to bilk taxpayers and defraud the government. What changed in the GOP?

This is a fascinating development to me. Democrats traditionally were defenders of for-profits, back when they were called trade schools. They saw them as helping low-income people. Republicans saw them as an industry that was just trying to collect funds and take advantage of an opportunity to get money from government. This was exactly the puzzle I faced in writing the book. What changed? [President Reagan's Secretary of Education] Bill Bennett complained about the for-profits. In 1990, senators Bob Dole and Phil Graham introduced legislation to try to scale them back. Just eight years later, you have John Boehner leading the charge to raise the percentage of the for-profits’ revenues that can come from government [from 85 to 90 percent].

The Republicans really reinvented themselves in the 1990s. They decided this was an industry they were going to defend. They get some campaign dollars out of it, but that doesn’t completely explain it. They also decided this was an industry that represented their values in higher education—that they could support higher-ed spending if it was going to this sector that was, as they saw it, “private.”

And among Democrats, you write that a “charm offensive” yoked them to the for-profit industry. Heather Podesta, Dick Gephardt, and Lanny Davis are among the prominent Democrats who have lobbied on behalf of the for-profits.

To talk about personal connections sounds so quaint and old fashioned. But I think it actually really matters. It’s fascinating when you look at the support in the House. You have liberal Democrats and members of the Black Caucus lined up with Tea Party Republicans. The conclusion I came to is that the for-profit industry has managed to be quite strategic. They got the GOP through polarization so they could focus on the Democrats. They didn’t need every Democrat, just enough. They hired these former Democratic lawmakers and staffers from the Hill.

Political scientists say it’s surprising how little money there actually is in American politics. When you look at how much money is at stake for these industries, they’re actually able to spend a relatively low amount. It seemed what was effective was who was doing the lobbying, together with the actual resources spent on it. Lawmakers are human beings like the rest of us. If someone in their broader social network is trying to convince them to do something, it can be pretty effective.

You are critical of online higher education, seeing the MOOCs as mostly a cost-cutting device. Do you see any promise in technology as a way to address the equality issues you lay out in the book?

I think there are very likely valuable ways that technology can be used. But our enthusiasm for online education is out ahead of our understanding of the learning impact and what particular pedagogies might work best and what courses work best in an online setting. We need to spend more time thinking about it before we run forward with it quickly. Otherwise the people who will be most disadvantaged are students.

Is there a hero of higher-ed reform?

The first person I’d mention is Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Ca.). She’s been a champion since the 1980s, when she worked on for-profit reform at the state level in California. She learned about this issue from her constituents in a very poor district in Los Angeles. They were really taken advantage of by these industries and they continue to be. Year in and year out, she works on this, no matter what else is happening.

In the Senate, Tom Harkin (D-Ia.) is the recent hero. He is holding hearings [on student debt and for-profit colleges], but the Republicans refuse to take part. It’s so different from when Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) did this in 1989 and 1990, and every member endorsed the report his committee put forth. It’s a striking change.