US higher education system is ‘capstone of inequality’

Selective institutions’ claims that they try to help low-income students are ‘hype’, says author of new book on higher education inequalities

五月 29, 2020
Students line the fence at the football field at university, USA
Source: Getty

Higher education in the US has “become a system that justifies race and class inequality”, according to Anthony Carnevale, founder and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW), and author of a new book that targets this system.

“This is bred in the bone,” Dr Carnevale told Times Higher Education. “It is the business model…In many ways, [higher education has] become the capstone of institutional inequality.”

His book, The Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favour the Rich and Divide America, argues that selective universities have “trapped themselves in a race for prestige and money”. Co-authored by Peter Schmidt, an education writer, and Jeff Strohl, CEW’s research director, it highlights that students with less social and financial capital are “ruthlessly sorted into colleges with fewer resources” and, as a result, have lower chances of graduating and finding good jobs than their better-off peers.

“US colleges reinforce intergenerational, racial and class privileges, then magnify and project these inequities into the labour market,” the book says, adding that just 19 per cent of prospective black and Latino students with high SAT scores go to selective institutions, compared with 31 per cent of their white counterparts.

Many selective universities profess that they mitigate barriers to entry by providing financial aid or specific programmes for low-income students, but Dr Carnevale said these initiatives prove only that they are not properly addressing the issue.

“The reason they have a special programme is because they’re not doing it [providing equal access]. It’s hype,” he said. “If you look at the top 500 colleges in America, less than 5 per cent of the kids in those colleges come from the bottom income quartile. That hasn’t changed since 1993.”

But Dr Carnevale does not lay the blame entirely on university leaders. While Harvard University “chooses to be elitist” – “it doesn’t really need to charge students, it could run the school for kids at the bottom of their class” – in most cases the tuition fee-based business model of higher education “doesn’t allow” institutions to admit more students from poorer backgrounds, he said.

“The annual process is that you admit as many students as you can through early admission, in October or November, and they are money in the bank,” Dr Carnevale argued. “Those kids are not kids who need scholarship money. Then you start bargaining with a mass of middle-class and upper middle-class parents. That’s called merit aid. Then whatever [places are] left over you can give to the low-income kids.

“The way you become a high-priced, ‘go to’ university in America is by turning people down, not by accepting people…If we [want to do] anything for low-income kids, we have to take the money out of merit aid. It’s not merit at all.”

Dr Carnevale said that when university leaders at selective universities try to “play it differently” and “make their college look more like America”, they are often forced out by their governing board.

He added: “If you go to the board and say, ‘We’re going to accept more low-income kids’, most of the people on the board are going to say: ‘No, we’re going to become Harvard. We’re going to accept as few people as possible. That way we can charge a lot of money and we’ll have strong alumni, which puts money in the bank.’”

Dr Carnevale acknowledged that the Covid-19 crisis has laid bare race and class inequalities as well as the fee-dependent business model of US universities. But he does not believe the pandemic will be a great driver of change towards equality, as some have predicted, saying it is “well known that the system discriminates by class and race”.

However, he does believe that the increasing likelihood of the adoption of a free-college plan in the US offers some hope, and he thinks demographic changes could pressure universities to expand their pool of applicants.

“Once there is a decline in the 18- to 24-year-old population, then a lot of universities will have an incentive to go get the low-income kids because they will be a bigger share of that group,” he said.

“That is one of the silver linings of the [changes in] demography. If you want to stay in business, you’ve got to get religion [get serious] on race and class equity, because that’s where the kids who are available are going to be.”



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Reader's comments (4)

Where are the solutions to the issues Carnevale perceives? Until he presents some ideas about what to do instead his work is of little practical use, it's merely a rant - especially when he rubbishes attempts to help students perceived as disadvantaged. Would he rather nobody bothered to offer scholarship programs?
Are you suggesting critiques are not valid if they don't also offer solutions? Wouldn't that be like someone "ranting" that their Tesla exploded, but then you saying, "Well if you don't have a solution, don't complain" ...
The book has an entire chapter devoted to solutions. The reporter here simply chose not to discuss them in the article.
The Harvard Quest is real. When I left fundraising at a sub-Ivy, the incoming president was adamant that if you weren't going after a $1 billion campaign, you were just pretending. I had made suggestions on how to create this equality so many speak of by asking if we could take all of the applications deemed to meet standards, choose to craft the first 50% in the "image" of the institution, and then literally pick the remaining 50% out of a hat. Removes bias at least at the tail end. It could still be rigged by not deeming as acceptable applications from those who didn't fit the image, but at least it was a start. My suggestions got some chuckles and comments about how the board and alumni would not let that happen, as if it was some sort of invasion they were preventing.