Great Unequalizer: Is Higher-Education Policy Making Inequality Worse?

Career College Central summary:

  • For 20 years, Suzanne Mettler, Ph.D., has been writing about U.S. government policies that help to build the middle class. She’s written about the G.I. Bill, which provided housing assistance and student aid to returning World War II soldiers and secured decades of upward mobility and economic security. She’s written about government safety net programs that get little attention but create an economic cushion for millions of Americans.
  • Now Mettler, a professor of government at Cornell University, has taken on education policy. But in her new book, Degrees of Inequality: How Higher Education Politics Sabotaged the American Dream, Mettler paints a picture of a system that actually deepens inequality and further disadvantages those at the bottom of the American economy.
  • In your book you argue that higher education no longer functions to provide equal access to opportunity in the United States, effectively to be, as Horace Mann called it, “the great equalizer.” Can you talk about how we got here?
  • Traditionally, for most of American history, higher education was something that was limited to people who’d grown up in very privileged backgrounds. But in the middle of the 20th century, with the creation of public programs including the G.I. Bill in 1944, and Pell Grants in 1972, we created a different system. These federal student aid policies helped to provide greater access to education and opportunity to people who came from low- to middle-income backgrounds. At the same time, states were investing more than ever in their public universities and colleges. So higher education had become a ladder to opportunity.
  • As we’ve seen rising economic inequality in the United States, I wanted to know if higher education was still playing that equalizing role. What I found is that if you look at who actually graduates by age 24 with a college degree, it is predominantly people who come from the upper quarter of the income spectrum. What we are doing now is making college a real right of passage for people who come from a privileged background. For everyone else, graduation rates are poor.

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