Raj Chetty: US higher education still mired in inequality

Celebrated Harvard economist opens THE’s World Academic Summit by showing academia’s top leaders the ways their sector continues to stratify society

October 11, 2022
Raj Chetty speaks at the World Academic Summit
Source: Steve Myaskovsky

The US’ innovation rate would quadruple if universities could deliver society-wide equity in education, Harvard University economist Raj Chetty has calculated.

Professor Chetty, a professor of public economics at Harvard University known for his data-driven examinations of societal inequity, opened the Times Higher Education’s World Academic Summit with a look at the ways the sector is contributing to the problem.

Examples covered by his presentation included a variety of ways that societal advantages – in wealth, race and gender – still play out in career success in the US, such as students being more than twice as likely to become a patent-holding inventor if their family was in the top fifth of incomes than if it was not.

More generally, Professor Chetty said, students born to the wealthiest US families have a nearly 100 per cent likelihood of going to college. Those born to the poorest families have about a 30 per cent chance.

“Higher education is actually not on net a great engine of economic opportunity,” said the professor, one of the youngest tenured faculty in the history of Harvard’s department of economics. “It’s actually serving to stratify society.”

THE’s chief annual gathering, hosted this year by New York University, was spending its three days with worldwide academic leaders exploring the ability of the sector to meet rising societal demands in the aftermath of Covid.

Professor Chetty led it off with some stark reminders, particularly for the sector’s more elite institutions, about their overall shortfalls on equity, noting that advantages conveyed through education have major persistence across generations.

He listed leading potential solutions for universities to consider as including programmes that encourage low-income students to apply, revisiting the practice of favouritism in admissions for children of alumni, and increasing student financial aid.

Another analysis showed that among students scoring at least 1,500 on the SAT college admissions test, most have about a 20 per cent chance of gaining acceptance from an “Ivy-plus” institution. Those odds, however, jump rapidly for students from families in the top one-fifth of US incomes, reaching about 50 per cent odds of entry for students from the highest-income families. That kind of inequity, Professor Chetty said, can be addressed by institutions in their admissions processes.

Professor Chetty also held out successful examples, with one list showing the top US colleges as measured by the percentage of students who come from families in the nation’s bottom fifth by income who ended up in the top fifth. Topping that list by a wide margin is California State University, Los Angeles, with about 10 per cent of its students making that leap.

Even that perspective got some pushback at the summit, over questions of the wisdom of promoting income-based measures of student success. “It will inevitably privilege those careers that give you access to the 1 per cent,” Gabrielle Starr, the president of Pomona College, said in recalling Professor Chetty’s analysis at a subsequent session of the THE conference.

In response, Professor Chetty told THE that he agreed with Professor Starr “that money is not the only yardstick for success” for students. “But other outcomes of interest – health, innovation, etc – are often correlated with money,” he said, “and at least at the lower end of the income distribution, achieving a better life in terms of living standards is often a priority for students attending college.”


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