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Degrees of Inequality: Culture, Class, and Gender in American Higher Education
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  1. Book Review: Degrees of Inequality
  2. Article excerpt
  3. Degrees of inequality: Culture, class, and gender in American higher education
  4. Degrees of Inequality

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Book Review: Degrees of Inequality

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Article excerpt

In , Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler highlighted poll results showing a striking phenomenon: About half of the Americans receiving federal assistance in paying college tuition or medical bills believe they have never benefited from a government social program.

Congressional polarization along party lines, it turns out, played a major role, as did plummeting federal and state support for four-year public universities.

I spoke with Mettler about why Republicans and reform-minded Democrats switched positions on for-profit colleges; why the liberal arts are underrated and MOOCs massive open online courses are overrated; and why corporate lobbyists are able to achieve so much influence in Washington for relatively little money. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. After writing about social policy more generally in your last book, what led you to take on this project about the failures of higher education policy in particular?

Degrees of inequality: Culture, class, and gender in American higher education

I was struck by how transformative it was for them, both for their social and economic status and for their political engagement. They became more involved citizens. The nation went on to have several more iterations of the GI bill and then expand student aid to civilians. During that period through the s, we were successfully expanding access to college throughout the income spectrum. What I wanted to know was what happened since then. I was becoming interested in rising economic inequality, and I wanted to know what difference higher education was making.


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You portray the four-year college degree as a transformative tool in battling inequality. What do you think of the counterargument that our national debate focuses too much on education as a driver of inequality? There are so many reasons why we need to increase our percentage of college graduates.

We need more people who are highly skilled to try and create the kind of innovation and creativity that leads to greater economic development in all sorts of ways. If we have more highly educated people, it will create more civic engagement and political engagement and leadership for American society. That said, getting a two-year degree is certainly better than having a high school degree. We need to do better at both two-years and four-years.

Part of the issue is that when people first graduate, there can be an easier segue into the job market for people with a two-year degree who are directed toward a specific job. But over the course of time, the four-year people surpass them. So we should pay less attention to those studies about how little money liberal arts grads earn in their first year out of college? By the time you are 40, you are doing much better.

As a college professor, I could ruminate on that. But then of course, we have to look at what sector of education are people attending? Is it a valuable degree?


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Your book suggests that in many cases, people are better off not going to college at all than attending a for-profit college. The industry says this is because they take a risk on less well-prepared students. They blame the students themselves when they drop out or fail to get decent jobs. What did your research turn up? As I show in my book, students who grow up high income and have low test scores are about as likely as students who are low income with high test scores to graduate college.

At the for-profits, the graduation rates are 22 percent.

Degrees of Inequality

We know schools with more low-income students are going to have lower graduation rates. Studies control for that factor and still find particularly low graduation rates at the for-profits. They charge very high tuition. You could get the same kind of degree at a community college or four-year public for a much lower cost.

As recently as the George H. Bush administration, prominent Republican leaders saw the for-profit trend as allowing low-quality colleges to bilk taxpayers and defraud the government.