The Unkept Promises of Higher Education

AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File

Rowers paddle along the Charles River past the Harvard College campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students
By Anthony Abraham Jack
Harvard University Press

The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them
By Christopher Newfield
Johns Hopkins University Press

Two Cheers for Higher Education: Why American Universities Are Stronger Than Ever—and How They Meet the Challenges They Face
By Steven Brint
Princeton University Press

This article appears in the Spring 2019 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

In a little-noticed development, access to college has grown dramatically since 2000: Postsecondary enrollment is up by about five million students to a total of nearly 20 million. The increase comes largely from minority and low-income students, who are often the first in their families to go to college. If these “new-gen” students stay in school and graduate, they may get the ticket to the middle class that they are hoping for. Over their lifetimes, college graduates earn on average $1 million more than those with only a high school diploma. But for the four out of ten freshmen who don’t graduate within six years, the prospect of upward mobility often turns out to be an illusion. Dropout rates are also staggeringly high at community colleges.

New-gen students are 20 percent less likely to graduate than their middle-class peers, a gap that has widened in the past four decades. Here’s a stunning statistic: Only 9 percent of students whose families are in the bottom income quartile get a bachelor’s degree by age 24, versus 77 percent of those from a family in the top quartile.

Many dropouts are actually worse off economically than if they had never enrolled in college. While they earn slightly more than those who have only a high school diploma, they leave college with a pile of debt. They are nearly twice as likely as college graduates to be unemployed and four times likelier to default on student loans. More than their lifetime income is on the line—over the course of their lives, homeownership, voting behavior, marriage, health, retirement, and life expectancy are also adversely affected.

In The Privileged Poor, Anthony Abraham Jack, an assistant professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, explores what happens to low-income students who enter an institution he calls Renowned U. Like most schools perched atop the U.S. News & World Report prestige ladder, Renowned U has been recruiting poor and minority students in recent years. (Today, about a sixth of the students at Harvard and Princeton are black or Latino, and a sixth are Pell grant recipients.) The increased admission of students from those backgrounds marks a change for the better, but Renowned U remains a bastion of wealth and privilege. It is one of 38 universities, including five in the Ivy League, that enroll more students from the top 1 percent in income than the bottom 60 percent.

As Jack shows in impressive detail, the different routes these students previously took in high school lead to distinctive college experiences. At Renowned U, like other elite universities, more than half of the poor African American students and about a third of the poor Latino students went to wealthy private secondary schools. When they arrive on campus, they already possess the cultural capital that enables them to connect, off the bat, with their professors and classmates. The other minority undergraduates attended neighborhood public schools, most of which were racially and socioeconomically segregated, and to these “doubly disadvantaged” students, a university like Renowned seems as foreign as Mars. Treating these two types of students as indistinguishable does them a disservice, says Jack, and “continuing to do so limits our understanding of the ways in which poverty and inequality shape the lives of today’s undergraduates.”

Although the privileged poor and the doubly disadvantaged have had varied cultural experiences, their experience growing up poor hits both groups with the same punch. Wealthy classmates may be clueless—“Come with us to Europe over the summer”—and the institution is worse. Because administrators at Renowned blithely assumed that every student takes off for spring break, the university shuttered its dining halls, and undergraduates who couldn’t afford to go away endured a spate of food insecurity. Renowned U provided poor students with free tickets to campus events that they otherwise couldn’t afford—a thoughtful gesture that the university ruined by making them collect their tickets on a separate line. (It took Jack’s prodding to change those practices.) Hiring students to clean the toilets in rich students’ dorm rooms, as Renowned did—it attracted poor undergraduates to do that work by paying them slightly more than students with cushier jobs—is no way to melt social-class boundaries.

The lesson is plain—simply admitting low-income students is just the start of a university’s obligations. Once they’re on campus, colleges must show them that they are full-fledged citizens, and Renowned flunked that test.

Christopher Newfield, a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, argues passionately that universities have betrayed their undergraduates. In The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them, Newfield identifies the culprit as market forces and market values. His ideals hearken back to Cardinal Newman, the seminal 19th-century educational philosopher, for whom nurturing the “real cultivation of the mind”—the capacity to think—was the raison d’être of higher education. “Universities,” Newfield writes, “are the only social institutions devoted to helping the rising generation master coherent parts of the vastness of human knowledge.”

But market logic defines the purpose of college in narrow economic terms as a glide path to greater earnings, and this understanding of higher education, Newfield argues, is what has led states to cut back on their investment. After all, the argument runs, if students are the ones who derive the main benefit from college, they should bear most of the cost. University officials have adjusted to diminished state support by pursuing private dollars, accepting whatever strings are attached. Instead of break-the-mold inquiry, they deliver education on the cheap through “mass commodity learning” and online instruction. The biggest losers are the new-gen students, the minus sign on the balance sheet (what one administrator at an elite college memorably labeled the “runoff”), who get shunted to the weakest institutions.

There’s a way out of this mess, Newfield argues. We need to see higher education as a public good and recognize that people who get a thinking person’s education contribute to the commonweal in ways not measured by their incomes. Although Newfield does the cause no favors by making outsized demands on the public purse, he is right to argue that today’s bottom-line-driven instruction does not serve society’s best interests.

In Two Cheers for Higher Education, Steven Brint, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Riverside, adopts a softer tone. Where Newfield points to the market as the villain, Brint is more nuanced in his critique. Despite the “two cheers” Brint gives the universities, he shares some of the same concerns as Jack and Newfield about undergraduate education—what he describes as higher education’s “Achilles’ heel.” As colleges have raised tuition to make up for lost public support, students have slipped deeper in debt. The caliber of teaching and learning has deteriorated as well. Students study much less than they did a generation or two ago, and they also learn less. The higher-education best-seller Academically Adrift, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, found that only half of undergraduates have become better critical thinkers during their college years.

Brint mostly blames the universities for this sorry situation. Even as they have added phalanxes of administrators, they have thinned the ranks of tenure-track professors, with more courses now being taught by adjuncts than full-time faculty. Classes are big and feedback minimal. With upward of six classes to teach, the adjuncts don’t have much time to read students’ papers. Since their livelihood depends heavily on ratings by students, they may go easy on them in a bid for popularity. Instruction is often second-rate, with instructors lecturing to bored and passive classes, rewarding memorization rather than thinking. The growth of so-called practical arts majors like recreation and leisure caters to what students demand, while not giving them a worthwhile education, and it is these undergraduates who are stagnating intellectually.

Brint isn’t optimistic about reform. The failure of most colleges to reduce the number of dropouts—especially those new-gen students—is a telling indicator of their priorities.

At universities whose leaders strongly believe that the success of the institution and the success of its students are inseparable, graduation rates have risen dramatically and the opportunity gap has shrunk to near nothing. The proven-to-work practices that those universities have adopted are readily implemented and needn’t cost a mint. But most college presidents are preoccupied with other things. They’re busy raising money; stroking professors’ egos; placating state lawmakers, trustees, and alumni; and managing campus crises. They want their school to move up in the U.S. News rankings, and achieving that goal requires that they become more selective and less concerned about the opportunities for new-gen students.

No one at the higher reaches of higher education gets fired because there are too many dropouts. But that is what ought to happen if colleges are going to get serious about making good on their promises. 

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