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Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Higher Education and Racial Inequality

For a half century, American higher education has imagined itself as a source of both social mobility and equality.  To be sure, there have always been limits to this claim.  It took important struggles during the 1960s and 1970s to open up universities to wider and more diverse student bodies.  And the impact of a college education itself creates an important social division between those who have degrees and those who don't.  In fact, it has been this perceived economic benefit that has helped justify the redefinition of higher education as a private rather than a public good. 

But Separate & Unequal, a recent report by Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, reveals a disturbing reality.  The report makes abundantly clear that over the last 15 years higher education has been a source of increasing racial inequality.  Focusing on African-Americans and Latinos, Carnevale and Strohl show that although minority enrollment has increased at a greater rate than has growth in white enrollment, this growth has been disproportionately in the poorest, and least selective, higher education institutions. (9-10, 16-21)    

Separate & Unequal also demonstrates that this differentiation cannot be explained by college preparedness. Examining similarly situated students (in terms of scores and grades), Canevale and Strohl found that although white and minority students went to college at similar rates, they did not go to the wealthier more selective colleges at similar rates.  Given the growing economic inequality among higher education institutions this division then led to far greater disparity in actual graduation rates and rates of time to degree.  Not surprisingly, graduation rates are highest in the wealthier sector where more resources (both in and out of classrooms) are available to students.  This problem has been increasing since the mid-1990s. (11-12)

As Carnevale and Strohl make clear, the end result of this tendency has been lower graduation levels and the intensified  reproduction of educational inequalities across generations.

Separate & Unequal offers a serious challenge to those promoting the "mismatch" theory (that affirmative action leads unprepared minority students to institutions too demanding for them to succeed).  In fact, the evidence provided in the report suggests that the problem is the exact opposite of that proposed by "mismatch": that the real difficulty is that minority students are being directed below their capacity and also deprived of the resources that help enable any student to succeed.  Retention and completion rates are simply higher at wealthier institutions no matter what your racial identification. (25-27)  In large part, this fact is due to the obvious inequality in resources spent on students.  As Carnevale and Stohl point out, the 82 most selective colleges spend (on average)  $27,900 per student, the most 468 selective colleges spend $13,400, while the open access (where African-Americans and Latinos are overrepresented) spend on average $6000.  (24)  Completion and graduation rates follow the money.

Given the increasing inequality among higher education institutions, Separate & Unequal argues that what we have witnessed in the last 15 years is an economically rather than legally constituted separate and unequal Plessy higher education system (although admittedly they don't use that term).   Although formally race blind, higher education in practice has evolved a new system for extending racial inequalities through access to resources. To be sure, their focus on the racial dimensions of the question is not meant to eliminate class as a variable here.  But even when controlled for class, racial inequities remain.  Indeed, the most powerful forces pushing against equal access to resources lie at the point where race and class reinforce each other.  (35-40

Given their emphasis on the importance of admission to the better resourced more selective, colleges and universities, Carnevale and Stohl emphasize different strategies for admission officers to more actively overcome these disparities--in particular a recognition that attempting to overcome these racial inequalities without directly addressing them (that is to say by seeking to create proxies) is extremely difficult.

But I want to point to two more implications of their study:

1).  Although they attend to the reality that there has been a growing financial inequality between higher education institutions (the pursuit of higher rankings and the desire of (overwhelmingly white) students to attend the higher ranked colleges, Carnevale and Stohl take that as a background condition for their analysis.  But it is worth highlighting in its own right.  As we have pointed out on numerous occasions, the gap between private universities and public universities (even within the more selective sector) has been growing over the last 15 years--to say nothing of the gap between private and the less selective public sector.   This period has also seen the increasingly widespread deployment of the High Tuition--Sort of High Aid model with its shift of economic burdens from states onto individual students and their families.

While one might have hoped that the student debt crisis with its contribution to the destruction of the economy as a whole and its clear and present danger for Higher ed finance might have finally quieted the Perverse Propagandists of Privatization and led to a rethinking of the immorality of the High Tuition--Sort of High Aid model, nothing of the sort seems to have occurred.  But in light of Carnevale and Stohl's data we can see even more clearly the wider implications of this strategy of social destruction--if we think of the inequities in access to resources as compounding the problem of debt itself it becomes clear that the inequality within higher education institutions and the increasing privatization of burdens is deepening the racial polarization of the country.

2).  Separate & Unequal should make us even more skeptical of the Flores-Steinberg approach to access through online providers.  As Canevale and Stohl make clear, it is not simply access to higher education institutions that matter (although that is necessary) but access to higher education resources.  Flores-Steinberg will (as would have the Edley-versity) simply provide a fig leaf for politicians and administrators to look like they were doing something to address inequities while actually reinforcing the growing racial disparity in access to the full range of higher education resources.

In the end, Separate & Unequal offers a clear challenge to American society:  renew necessary funding for public higher education to reduce inequities in higher education resources OR willfully choose to use higher education as a mechanism to increase racial inequality in the United States. 


Charles Schwartz said...

I read that report by Carnevale and Stohl and shared many of Michael's thoughts about the sad story it brings forward. However, I also found that one of their findings - the one about greater resources provided to students at the more selective institutions - is seriously flawed.They relied upon data provided by the Delta Cost Project, which uses data collected by IPEDS. The particular datum there is called "per-student expenditures for instruction,"as reported by each college or university. This is seriously distorted in the case of research universities (public or private), because this datum is bloated with costs of faculty research and also some major money coming from clinical practice in a medical school. Thus, the published IPEDS number for UCLA is TWICE the number published for Berkeley.

I have written in the Chronicle of Higher Education about this awful state of data on higher ed. And I contacted the authors of this report (Carnevale and Stohl) pointing out their serious flaw.
Sorry to report that the state of scholarship in higher ed studies is not as high as one would like.

Michael Meranze said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Meranze said...


Thanks for your comment and for pointing out the (lack of) reliability of the specific figures that they cite.

But I do think that their general point holds for at least two reasons:

First, although that particular number is dubious it is only part of a much larger equation that concerns facilities, libraries, support services etc. I can't imagine that anyone could make a case that students at the most selective schools are not supported by far more resources than students at Community Colleges.

Second, the study is not simply about large research universities. There are large numbers of smaller liberal arts colleges involved here (especially in the private sector) whose numbers have been growing. I have only anecdotal evidence here but the people I know who teach at liberal arts colleges do not have the same time organization as those at large research institutions. Nor are classes large etc...

I think that the largest problem with the study that I saw was that I thought that their divisions between "selective" and "non-selective" wasn't fine enough. I suspect the situation would look even worse if the real inequalities between institutions had been made clearer through finer divisions.

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