Both for themselves and for others, Americans carry an enduring faith that a college education creates opportunity for rising up social ranks. Considerable evidence from historians and social scientists shows that this conviction is, in the aggregate, misplaced. In the contemporary United States, higher education does more to exaggerate than relieve class and cultural divisions.
Let’s start with history. Cristina Groeger argues in The Education Trap: Schools and the Remaking of Inequality in Boston that the US higher-education ecology was designed to cement rather than to remediate privileges of birth. It’s a lively and fascinating account of occupational politics and entrepreneurial ambition, crafted with scholarly care and recounted lucidly. For those who would see the expansion of educational opportunity as a harbinger of social equity and inclusion, however, it is not an encouraging story.
Turn-of-the-century Bostonians were proud of providing myriad forms of education for their city’s citizens, a legacy grounded in the bookish religious traditions of its Anglo-Protestant founding families. Harvard College was only the first of scores and then hundreds of schools in the region. Although some conformed to the model of private nonprofit education we’ve come to associate with schools like Harvard, many others were for-profit businesses: historical antecedents to the latter-day University of Phoenix or Coursera. These schools offered training for the sorts of occupations increasingly in demand at the subordinate levels of emerging workplace bureaucracies: bookkeeping, stenography, typing, and office management, among others. Such programs found ready customers among the Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants who rapidly changed the social landscape of greater Boston in the decades following the Civil War.
Harvard’s leaders saw other schools and their patrons as threats. Together with the Boston Brahmins who funded and drew status from their alma mater, Harvard’s leaders moved to safeguard their constituents’ privileges, and establish the institution as the focal machine for reproducing Boston elites. Harvard did this first by erecting walls around admissions: Anglo-Protestant applicants were explicitly favored. It then carefully negotiated its role as the instituting prime broker between its students and their first jobs. Harvard shored up its connections with exclusive employers, especially merchant banks and the law firms that came to be known as “white shoe”—meaning that they drew from a few prestigious schools whose graduates favored white buckskin footwear with red soles and heels. Such firms serviced the interests of the corporations then coming to dominate the regional economy. In establishing these school-to-work channels, Harvard made itself into a club whose members could expect to build social connections leading to lucrative first jobs.
Those excluded from Harvard Yard were not thrust out of the game entirely. Schools like Boston College and Boston University emulated the Harvard model and matched Catholic Bostonians with jobs of similar social status to their schools. Farther down the status ladder, colleges and universities shuttled students into occupations corresponding to their descending rungs.
Although Groeger’s focus is on greater Boston at the turn of the 20th century, Harvard’s strategy for solidifying its graduates’ status established the dynamics of education and occupational opportunity, which played out up and down the Eastern seaboard and throughout the progress of Western expansion, too. Simply put, civic fathers and mothers on the expanding frontier played copycat with their forebears, building in Austin, Boulder, Berkeley, Chicago, and Oberlin schools, which mimicked the curriculums, look, and feel of Eastern-seaboard campuses. They ultimately carried the collegiate machinery connecting young people and desirable occupations all the way to Honolulu.
Today, hierarchies of class, ethnicity, and occupational prestige cannot be defended so explicitly, yet, the system of US higher education remains deeply, perhaps inextricably, intertwined with them. The ability to translate education into access to well-compensated jobs sorts our thousands of universities into tiers, and their students along with them. Millions each year are absorbed into what sociologists call the “credential economy.” Following scholars such as Randall Collins, Michael Hout, and David Labaree before her, Groeger argues that diplomas, certificates, certifications, licenses, and badges are forms of currency. Students exchange tuition dollars, their time and energy, and their existing social status for postsecondary credentials, which become the tokens required for gaining access to legitimate and well-compensated employment.
Similar forces apply to the credential economy as the money one: expanding the currency in circulation creates inflation. When too many others possess, say, a bachelor’s diploma, its worth is diluted. In order to achieve the same exchange value, students must pursue more valuable credentials, or those with more prestige. Employers recognize this phenomenon, and take advantage of it to ratchet up the cultural cachet of employment in their sectors. Employers offering the most-coveted positions raise their educational requirements; those further down the status pecking order follow along. The credential race that ensues benefits those who print and sell credentials at least as much as those with the means to acquire them.
Once we recognize that higher education was built and evolved to uphold hierarchies of class, ethnicity, and occupation, all sorts of evidence challenging the American faith in higher education as a mobility project becomes easier to comprehend. Consider California, whose public higher-education system is often praised as an engine of opportunity. Of the 20 institutions in the nation that do the best job of moving graduates from the bottom fifth to the top fifth of the income distribution in a generation, seven are public colleges and universities in the state of California. Fully half of those who attended the nine research universities constituting the top tier of the California system between 1999 and 2008 had higher incomes than their parents. Yet, the entire system is also stratified by class and race.
The research campuses of the University of California—the “UCs”—generally service the most affluent and academically accomplished Californian students. But the demographic differences among the UC campuses are pronounced: white and Asian American students dominate enrollments at the flagships UC Berkeley and UCLA, while Black and Latinx students are disproportionately represented at UC Riverside and UC Merced, its financially poorest and least prestigious branches. A core project of the entire UC enterprise is to serve all Californians equitably, but it doesn’t. Explaining why is the goal of Laura Hamilton and Kelly Nielsen’s sobering book Broke: The Racial Consequences of Underfunding Public Universities. Broke enables readers to understand how public institutions contribute to hardening the striations of the national class structure.
Scores of interviews, participant observation among students and administrators, and a copious document archive form the empirical core of Broke. Its authors are, however, also keenly attuned to how their data reveal higher education’s historical inheritance. Hamilton and Nielsen begin their account with the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965. Ushered into law as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society initiative, the HEA made college access a central tenet of the American Dream. The Act’s architects, including President Johnson himself, recognized that postsecondary education in the US had long been the purview of wealthy white men; they designed the HEA to be a mechanism for expanding opportunity. The successes of the Black civil rights movement—specifically, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, or national origin—was a touchstone for Johnson, as was his own experience as a student whom Southwest Texas State Teachers College helped to lift out of poverty. Over the next 20 years, a bundle of congressional acts enabled vast numbers of Black, poor, and female students to gain entry to and graduate from college. Higher education became a privilege of citizenship for young educational achievers.
Black and brown students increasingly enrolled at colleges and universities. By the 1970s, the civil rights and social-welfare projects of the 1960s had begun to realize results in the landscape of American institutions. At the same time, as Hamilton and Nielsen point out, resentments against taxation began to rise. White voters created a formidable anti-tax movement that channeled white resentment about the ways state institutions, like colleges and universities, opened opportunity to racial others.
Today, hierarchies of class, ethnicity, and occupational prestige cannot be defended so explicitly, yet, the system of U.S. higher education remains deeply, perhaps inextricably, intertwined with them.
The tax revolt began in California, the national exemplar of free public higher education, with the passage of Proposition 13, in 1978, which restricted the state’s ability to tax property and, in doing so, squeezed the state’s coffers. The movement quickly spread nationwide. Its leaders posed a rhetorical conflict between a “we” whose property and income taxes paid for government services and a “they” who unfairly took advantage of them. This narrative was compelling to voters who imagined having worked hard to earn their prosperity while government increasingly recognized the struggles of others.
Despite this opposition, colleges and universities continued to enjoy high regard through the end of the 20th century. That alone could not pay the bills, however. State legislatures became ever more constrained, their budgets depleted by the small-government politics their Republican members proffered and by the steadily rising costs of health care and the incarceration of more and more citizens. Legislatures cut their appropriations to higher education. In response, colleges and universities raised tuition, which families increasingly paid for by taking out federal-government-backed student loans.
These changes hit the nation’s newer public universities especially hard. Schools like UC Riverside and UC Merced did not enjoy endowments that could buffer government budget cuts, or possess generations of loyal alumni who might lobby politicians on their behalf. They instead relied on public support for their physical plants and operations and on students who depended on Pell grants and loans to pay tuition and fees. Because the effects of race and class discrimination chronically commingle in the US, poorer students also were more likely to be Black and brown and to be the subjects of affirmative action, which, in addition, drew vociferous and politically effective opposition from conservatives.
In this wake of this activism, California incrementally redefined what its citizens could expect from the state’s public higher-education system. Access could no longer be considered a right of citizenship. Instead, funded by federal grants to individual students and family debt, education came to be understood as a private good and a commodity service. The politics that deprived the UC system of public funding also framed higher education as an “investment,” complete with payments from students and their families required to secure their own futures. In formal terms, the reconfigured regime applies to all Californians. It also divides them. Those whose families can pay full freight enjoy the benefit of a world-class higher education, while the others mortgage their own financial futures with debt to attain the same “public” service. California’s higher-education system reproduces the very social hierarchies that it has long been praised with alleviating.
This outcome is not accidental. It coalesced in response to the expansion of postsecondary access to nonwhite Americans. Hamilton and Nielsen offer a haunting term, postsecondary racial neoliberalism, to describe the composite phenomenon. Desperate for new sources of revenue, colleges and universities sought out new patrons. Because legislatures often capped the tuition they could charge in-state residents, public flagships courted new customers. Universities touted their status as “global,” and attracted students from whom they could exact considerably higher tuition and fees. Public universities all over the country began competing for the children of affluent families in China and India. Closer to home, they pursued deep-pocketed students from out of state who would also pay elevated rates.
Hamilton and Nielsen explain that this is a game only relatively prestigious, name-brand universities can play. Partly because of their middling reputations, and doubtlessly also because of pervasive racism, public campuses like Merced and Riverside are likely to be bypassed by wealthy families for whiter, more amply resourced and better-known schools.
If this story is unfamiliar, it may have something to do with the fact that the affluent, well-educated population of readers and writers of book reviews are much more likely to have themselves attended well-endowed colleges and universities with selective admissions and to be worried about getting their own children into such schools. This is the rarefied precinct of the higher-education ecology plumbed by Jeffrey Selingo in Who Gets in and Why: A Year inside College Admissions. A seasoned education journalist, Selingo based the book on wide-ranging investigative reporting into the admissions cycle of a single year, focusing most closely on three schools that granted him generous access: the University of Washington in Seattle (a public flagship), and Davidson College and Emory University (both prestigious private schools). He also conducted interviews with high school guidance counselors, enrollment-management consultants, admissions officers, and college hopefuls from coast to coast.
Selingo found a few hundred colleges and universities almost rabidly chasing the same few tens of thousands of 17-year-olds each year. These are the kids with strong coursework, grades, and test scores, who also hail from families wealthy enough to pay high tuition. The grades and scores burnish schools’ positions in rankings schemes, such as those produced by US News and World Report. The family wealth underwrites the comfortable salaries and modest teaching loads of research faculty (like those my colleagues and I enjoy at Stanford) and the resort-like amenities parents and students increasingly expect. Every single one of these schools is a historically white institution.
Broke and Who Gets in and Why show that higher education in the US reprises the educational world of The Education Trap, in which chances of birth substantially shape what kind of school a student attends. Today, as in the early 20th century, colleges compete with one another for the children of the most privileged families. Now, as then, schools with legacies of service to the white and affluent enjoy strong competitive advantages. Now, as then, schools and families alike view their relationship as a market transaction in which money and status are exchanged for credentials that serve as valuable currency in stratified labor markets.
As contemporary educators confront austerity budgets, pandemic recovery, and renewed anger about race and class inequality—not to mention soaring college costs and debt—they might do well to develop fresh narratives of higher education as a civic endeavor rather than a competitive business. The American faith in higher education may depend on it.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.