Degrees of Inequality: Culture, Class, and Gender In American Higher Education

July 7, 2011

This book asks whether the move to a mass higher education system in the US has delivered on its promise and addressed some of the country's underlying social inequalities, including those related to class and gender. Ann Mullen's clear answer is that it has not.

Access to education has long been seen as key to realising the American dream, yet, despite the expansion of higher education, the US has the highest income inequality of any rich member state of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, and men still earn some 20 per cent more than women. Mullen suggests that the "great paradox" of higher education is that "a social institution regarded as critical for ensuring equal opportunity is marked by powerful patterns of inequality that both reflect and perpetuate social stratification". Following work by Jennifer Engle and Vincent Tinto, her central tenet is that expansion is a necessary but not sufficient condition of greater equality: who goes to college is less important than where they go and what they study.

The US system is a pyramid comprising a few, selective, expensive institutions at the top with numerous, less selective, less expensive institutions at the bottom. Mullen's book details the strong connection between students' social origins, university destinations and subjects of study. Privileged students increasingly attend top institutions while those from low socio-economic backgrounds "cluster at the bottom of the educational hierarchy". Privileged students undertake a liberal arts education; poorer students take "pre-professional" training. Expansion of the sector takes place at the pyramid's base, leaving intact the ennobling effect of attending elite institutions, whose graduates enjoy higher salaries and elevated life-chances.

This isn't news, of course, but Mullen addresses a lacuna in the evidence base: students' perspectives on their place in the hierarchy, and how they choose a university. She offers 100 interviews with undergraduates at two very different institutions: Yale University and Southern Connecticut State University, just two miles, but a world, apart. Yale is "about two thousand times" wealthier than Southern and the contrast between their students is stark. In the main, Yale educates wealthy students and Southern educates poorer ones. Southern students often have lacklustre academic records and are less engaged with the "college experience", while Yale students bring a history of application to study, social and cultural capital, and a desire to embrace all aspects of university life. "Yalies" see "the end value of education in the journey"; Southern students "set their sights on the destination".

Mullen's analysis demonstrates that much of the difference can be explained with reference to school, family, peer and university support for educational aspirations, rather than just the outcome of individual differences or preferences. The book's most important contributions lie here, in the careful illustrations of how students developed their thinking about the purpose and value of education, and their relationship to learning, and in drawing out from their narratives evidence of social scaffolding of "suitable" and "unsuitable" trajectories.

Alongside other agents, Mullen suggests, universities play their part in informally deselecting certain students. Athletes, for instance, receive double the admissions advantage over ethnic-minority applicants. Even academically talented students from poor backgrounds are unlikely to apply to elite institutions. Mullen concludes that "without overt coercion, most individuals gravitate toward their prescribed location".

Notwithstanding its contribution, the book has weaknesses. It is often repetitive. It promises to explore the effects of both class and gender, but the focus on the former is primary. This renders the discussion of gender too slight to deal with its complexities. Mullen only considers women's disadvantage: more men than women attend elite universities and more women study subjects that lead them towards feminised, less well-paid occupations. This occludes the fact that women now outnumber men in US higher education, and are achieving better degrees. Indeed, some groups of men are more likely to graduate from jail than from university.

Its central weakness lies in the way it presents the participants' commentary. It is clear from the surrounding text who is from Yale or Southern, but otherwise quotations are usually disembodied fragments, so that we do not know whether the participant is male, female, what ethnic group or class they belong to, whether they are first-generation university attendees or not. We have no means of linking different quotes made by the same participant, so cannot grasp a cumulative picture of any one individual's complex narrative. This rankles in a book that claims to be a sociological exploration of the "student voice" and of how individual students' decision-making processes in relation to university are determined by their class and their gender.

Degrees of Inequality: Culture, Class, and Gender In American Higher Education

By Ann L. Mullen. Johns Hopkins University Press. 264pp, £26.00. ISBN 9780801897702. Published 14 January 2011

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