Blog Post

How Does Higher Ed Contribute to Income Inequality and How Can We Remedy The Problem?

            An essential difference between higher education in the U.S. and most of the rest of the world is that the "sort" of who will or won’t go to university and the sort for what field one will study at university begin far earlier elsewhere.   Between the ages of ten and sixteen (depending on the country), various kinds of testing determine who will or won’t be eligible for post-secondary education.  Some students go into a vocational track, others into college prep.   Those heading into a college preparatory track often begin to study one discipline in secondary school that they will also focus on for the full course of their college study--math, history, philosophy, biology, and so forth.  

             This different way of sorting who does or doesn’t go to college is founded in different assumptions about the relationship between education and work.  It is also founded in different assumptions about such deep issues as class structure, class mobility, innate ability, and the relationship of education to all of these. 

           In the U.S., the belated sorting ostensibly happens at the post-secondary level.   This began in the Industrial Age, roughly the first decade of the 20th century, when high school in the U.S went from being largely college preparation to be required, for roughly two years (with variations in different states) for everyone.   The educational and social philosophy behind making secondary education compulsory for all is rooted in the idea that higher education is the single best route to class mobility in the U.S., that college is the best way to raise oneself  from the working to the middle class.   In other countries, that democraticizing ambition is less clearly articulated in the society and the justification for public education is less tied to the idea of social mobility and, perhaps, in some countries, more to the idea of quality of life at all social levels. 

           In terms of early-age field screening, other national educational systems place more of an emphasis on “ability” or a “predilection" being fixed for most people.  In some there is perhaps even an assumption that such things are innate and deserve early cultivation. One is "good at " math or "good at" history.  The educational emphasis is far more on focus, on cultivating that talent,  than it is the US system where the emphasis falls more on general education and on cultivating the whole person.   (In Europe, it should be added, much of the liberal arts or general education is thought to be a component of culture more generally, perhaps less a responsibility of schools in and of themselves.)

            There are, of course, many plusses and minuses for each system and many exceptions to these very general rules.   However,  one  factor is absolutely crucial to consider in the U.S. in 2014.   All recent research shows that, because of the defunding of public education and the high cost of private, higher education in the U.S., and because those with a college degree still earn higher wages over the course of a lifetime than those without, higher education is no longer the general, democratizing key to social mobility.   In fact, higher education now adds to, rather than ameliorates, income inequality.  The more affluent you are, the more likely you are to attend college and become more affluent.  

           Given that switch, given the demographic fact that higher education is, for the first time in the 20th century, not the road to the middle class in the U.S., we must now ask ourselves :  does it make sense to prolong the sorting for post-secondary education, especially if that means not providing other important forms of education for those not going to college?     

           There are many questions embedded in that one question and I'll focus on just a few.   First, secondary education has been stripped of good, solid vocational training for a few decades.  This is a social tragedy.  It means everything about the current educational system, especially under the 2002 national policy of No Child Left Behind, is implicitly valued as college preparatory. In the most extreme cases (still extant in several states), if too high a proportion of a high school's students fail the year-end tests (themselves conceived of as college prep in focus), the school can be closed or privatized, the teachers penalized, fired, or not given raises (again, with variations in different locations).  Almost no where are these live-or-die high-stakes tests geared to the skills, talents, interests, and training of non-college bound students.   The system inherently skews toward college prep, then ranks "successful schools" on that basis.   It's a circular system that closes some percentage of students (roughly about a third) out of educational success more broadly defined.


          Similarly, the system of community colleges (NB: make sure to read the wise comments below), where various forms of vocational post-secondary training are offered, does a great job but, in general, our community colleges are woefully underfunded.  Due to lack of resources, they often can offer relatively little of the advising, mentoring, tracking, and training in study methods and time saving habits that are commonplace at four-year private colleges and that, the research shows, contribute significantly to success.  There are many exceptions, of course, but many community colleges simply don't have resources for supporting students who are stressed by financial and other exigencies.  If the four-year graduation rate at elite privates is over 90% whereas at community colleges the six year rate is less than fifty percent, it is largely because those with the most financial exigency (jobs, families) and the least preparation are also given the least counseling and assistance (again, due to a lack of resources at many of our nation's community colleges).  In other words, we assume college is tough and, where there are resources, we construct systems of support to ensure student success--especially among those who have enjoyed the greatest support getting to college in the first place.  Once again, college adds to income inequality rather than diminishes it.  A recent study at Harvard revealed radical disparities in how much Harvard students were monitored, supported, and cared for versus students in a community college blocks away, even though the community college students were far more likely to have outside jobs and responsibilities than the Harvard students.   Any comparison of drop out rates has to factor in these support system disparities.

         Similarly, vocational training in fields for which many jobs remain—from landscape architecture to cosmetology or robotic-assisted manufacturing or car repair or audio engineering—tends to be increasingly the realm of for-profit institutions and those are, increasingly, run by major corporations with shareholders who demand quarterly dividends.  That's a very bad trade off, if the only way to be trained for a trade is through a school whose secondary goal may be your success as a student but whose main goal (structurally) is profit for its shareholders.    That is an innately inequitable system.

          So if higher education is no longer the key to upward mobility for most students and if secondary education is implicitly college prep and does not serve as good grounding in the foundational skills necessary for a successful life in vocational fields, we have a problem as a society.  We are contributing to educational failure by not offering a pathway to successful adulthood.  We are not offering those not college bound the training they need and that society needs.  Again, the structure of U.S. education is contributing to rather than helping to erase income inequality--exactly the opposite of our rhetoric and aspirations for U.S. education.


           We have to address these social issues from a global perspective and use the successes of each country to help to remedy problems in other countries.   In general, higher education embeds the social assumptions of a society, its highest aspirations and goals for future, productive citizens.  K-12 education cannot change unless higher education changes and unless the public’s interest in producing a certain kind of society (and not just a certain kind of rhetoric) changes.  If in the US the justification for an entire system of education based on democratization and rising to the middle or professional/commercial class is no longer true, then we have to think about new alternatives that encompass new economic realities or, even better, that do a better job of addressing income and social inequality by design, not by broken promises.  That is the challenge. 


            For those who are not receiving  a U.S.-style education based on the promise of upward mobility to the middle class life as the reward, the issue is different but not contradictory.   If you were rebuilding your educational system for the society you wanted, what would it look like?   If you were rethinking your system for a world characterized by rapid change and the ability to be trained to change fields, how would you change the early-disciplinary sorting of your university?  What other changes would you envision?  Why?  How?


            These are all the deep, profound, international, and philosophical and social questions we hope to address in our “Designing Higher Education from Scratch” project that will be part of HASTAC’s #FutureEd Initiative, part of my MOOC on “The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education,” and part of a face-to-face class I’m teaching at Duke starting in January, with partnering classes at Stanford and the University of California at Santa Barbara.  To read more, check out all the resources and partnerships for FutureEd:   Or you can read about it here, in “It’s Not a MOOC, It’s a Movement.”



"whereas at community colleges the six year [graduation]  rate is less than fifty percent"

One of the problems faced by community colleges is how success--in terms of graduation rate--is measured.  A student who enrolls in a community college and then transfers to a university without first finishing their Associate Degree is counted against the success rate of the community college.  This is true even if the student were to complete their university degree.

For example, 10 students enroll in a community college.  Six spend one year at the community college and then transfer to university where they get a degree.  Two drop out of college.  The other two complete an Associate Degree.  The success rate of the community college for these 10 students would be measured as 20%.


Hi Steve, I completely agree with you.  Community colleges, in general, do an amazing job against great odds--not only the way numbers are counted but the stress on faculty, staff, and students to do so much with relatively little, especially in terms of counseling.  (I didn't go into it here but in other places have alluded to the wonderful study done of counseling, advising, caretaking, monitoring, and all other kinds of shepherding to success and vigilance--including, I would add, grade inflation--at Harvard versus at the local community college less than a mile away.  The numbers in all ways are shockingly clear.  If you don't know this study, I'll find it for you.

Supporting community colleges AND providing more vocational training in non-liberal arts areas for those not going on to tertiary education seems esential for a just society.

By the way, it used to irk me when studies were made of the success rate at MSU over four years, when I taught there; it was always deplorable, especially compared to UM---and then impressive when you factored in the number of students working over 30 hours a week and looked at 6-8 year rates.   I'm told MSU's graduation rate is higher now but so is the family income of the average student and the need to work as many hours per week.   These things go hand in hand.  

Anyone interested in this topic should read the indispensible Century Foundation's 2013 report on community colleges, Bridging the Higher Education Divide,  which documents the extreme funding differences between two-year and four-year colleges at the federal and state levels, this despite the fact that almost half of the current student population in the U.S. (44%) attend community colleges.   The waiting list to attend community colleges in California alone is over 450,000.  Why isn't this a national crisis? 

Thanks for writing and adding this important amplification.  I have lectured at Durham Tech and am often blown away by the quality of the students and the faculty--including in terms of astonishing innovation.    But you are such a great innovator that I do not have to tell you of the innovation at our community colleges.  It is one reason I'm so glad you and your students are part of FutureEd.  You will have much to contribute to everyone.


To begin, we are no longer in the 20th century, so those standards - college degrees as gateways to the bourgesoisie, general mathematical and verbal literacies, and "career readiness" for, generally, a single career and three to five employers - are as useful as slavery was in 1914. In other words, "traditions change."

One might re-evaluate those traditions from either direction - the kid or the culture. From the kid's perspective, two decades of new peonage with horrendous higher ed debt secured from bankruptcy protection, college is at best a dubious risk, at worst a new slavery. From the culture's perspective, the higher ed "establishment" is vastly over-investing in infrastructure and tending toward a bubble, with examples ranging from Harvard's $3billion "purchase" of large areas of Allston to Cornell's colony in New York City. The value these investments add to these institutions is calculated by how much more they can get, and not by what they will give their communities, industries, or traditions.

Contrasting with that establishment bubble, the ruthless commerce of the testing companies and for-profit universites are creating whore-houses of unusually inept or repressed anti-union over qualified part-time academics. When they realize their exploitation it's usually too late to avoid exploiting their students for cash and second-rate certification.

And contrasting with the bubble and the prostitution of career-related academic "preparation" there is a slight ray of hope through vehicles like the College for America and their distinctive kind of retroactive accreditation for what students learn on their own, or the Manchester Bitwell Corporation and Bill Strickland's network of career academies with corporate partners, that award jobs and careers rather than degrees and diplomas. These models have already been cited by Obama but their impact has yet to register among traditionals.

There are several obvious shifts that have occurred with this new century, some of which had hints much earlier. In the mid 20th century, Bunker Hill Community College (the newest community college is college-rich Boston) had an "open college," that awarded credit for skills rather than "seat time" in courses, and moved adults through faster, better, and with more realistic certification. The MOOCs, of which you are both a proponent and participant, offer evidence that courses need not be passive or time-certain experiences. And the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and the Buck Institute's Project-Based Learning show that secondary school need not be secondary to college. Both of those had foreshadowings with several notable charter school initiatives, including one started by the American Federation of Teachers themselves, Boston Pilot Schools.

While it's good to note the opportunities that the general mendacity provides, it's tough when you look at the odds against success the next generation must face.


This reminded me of a recent American Radioworks (@AmRadioWorks) audio podcast: “College Un-Affordability” (Dec. 17, 2013 (13’-34”) Chris Farrell makes the point that the cost of college has risen sustantially since the mid 1970s, but household incomes have been stagnant. Although, in his view, a college degree will still pay off in the long run, the debt burden is high (especially as more students are following their university degree with a college diploma in order to gain marketable skills). Farrell also notes that, unlike other sectors that have incorporated new technologies into their processes, higher education has not seen increases in productivity or efficiency. This may be partly due to the labour intensive nature of university teaching, and the increasing managerialism of the sector worldwide. A more significant issue might be that, in higher education, the common practice is to add new technologies to existing technologies (the lecture, traditional organisational structures and hierarchies) that remain largely unchanged. We teach courses about innovation and sustainability, but we haven’t changed the underlying systems and structures — the soft, and largely invisible technologies that determine institutional processes, including how we teach.

The appropriate, smart use of technologies (both hard and soft) might enable us address some of the problems that you have raised in this post. How can we design resources so that they can be easily repurposed for use by individuals who are not in our classes? How can networks and collaborative practices enable us to realise additional value from our labor and resources without additional cost? How can we enable a process of gradual entry and involvement, so that prospective students can preview a course before they commit themselves financially?


And most of those models you suggest - social, cultural, and economic mobility through higher ed - were developed soon after mandating k-8 education in the 1850's. The Land Grant colleges were, after all, a Civil War byproduct. Industrialization made postsecondary more useful, certainly, and, in many states and cities, much of college was and remained without tuition, as was typical in most of Europe, at least until recently. The reason, in fact, tuition gradually emerged was in response to available loan funds more than costs - and then costs rose to eat up those funds. For that matter, most people don't realize that Harvard remains the fourth branch of Massachusetts Government as it is described in the fifth chapter of the state constitution.

The winding and unwinding of college as a preferred vehicle to realize the "American Dream" is well framed by Chris Newfield's Ivy and Industry, and his even more acerbic Unmaking the Public University. Many of Newfield's arguments mirror those of Jeff Selingo in College UnBound and Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus' Higher Education? And these dystopian views of the "liberal" arts are in sharp contrast to those of the entrepreneurs like Pearson and their other entrepreneurial allies, even when they use much the same vocabulary.

The line between public and private is, as both Harvard and Southern New Hampshire University show, not so clear. Yet the huge expansion of profit-based colleges since the Reagan-Bush era has created a whole different cultural meaning to post-secondary general education. Because college loans are uniquely exempt from bankruptcy defense, they have become a trillion dollar investment of public funds in twenty years of peonage for all but the wealthiest Americans.

Now that is most certainly a contrast with the GI Bill and the democratization of postsecondary experiences in the 1940's, 50's, 60's, and 70's.

Yet, the innovations that SNHU's College for America basically reflect a creative use of easily available technology, and a realization that "seat time" is a fairly useless metric to measure career and professional readiness. Even more dramatic, however, are some of the parallel innovations in secondary education, which promise - or at least make feasible - similar changes in the k-12 systems. Manchester-Bidwell and their National Center for Arts & Technology, along with their eight affiliates, offer pre-career training that produces jobs rather than diplomas or degrees. That rips the guts out of most vocational programs, and delivers them, in quivering readiness, to both employers and their new employees.