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Mass Higher Education: What Is Its Impetus? What Is Its Impact?

by Kevin J. Dougherty - 1997

The materials from The Condition of Education 1997 nicely document how American higher education is a mass enterprise on its way to being a universal one. With an occasional dip here and there, the share of high school graduates going on to college the following October has steadily increased, reaching 62 percent in 1995 (U.S. Department of Education, 1997, p. 66). Yet, while acclaimed by many, this universalization of higher education raises many questions. Why is it occurring? Is it due to technological imperatives and popular demand or are other forces at work as well? What impact will it have? How much will it equalize life chances? How will it change higher educational institutions?

The materials from The Condition of Education 1997 nicely document how American higher education is a mass enterprise on its way to being a universal one. With an occasional dip here and there, the share of high school graduates going on to college the following-October has steadily increased, reaching 62 percent in 1995 (U.S. Department of Education, 1997, p. 66).

Yet, while acclaimed by many, this universalization of higher education raises many questions. Why is it occurring? Is it due to technological imperatives and popular demand or are other forces at work as well? What impact will it have? How much will it equalize life chances? How will it change higher educational institutions?


The rise of mass and even universal higher education may simply seem to be a reflection of technological demands an-d democratic values, the binary forces that Americans have long used to explain our 150 years of educational expansion (Cremin, 1977, pp. 103, 111, 123; Trow, 1962). But are democratic values and technological demands enough to explain this development?

If democracy has been a central force, how is it that the American educational system is so much more massive than in European countries with I much higher rates of political turnout, party competition, social welfare spending, and economic equality? The answer is that it is democracy joined with decentralization that produces effective public demand. In the United States, public demand for higher education more readily encounters a commensurate supply because there is an absence of strong central control. The governance of American higher education is very decentralized, with many private colleges and with public colleges controlled by many state and local governments rather than the national government. As a result, student demands for greater access to higher education are harder to stem (Collins, 1979). Still, why is there so much student demand for access to higher education to begin with?

The changing skill requirements of the economy seem to play a major role. Occupational projections suggest that 52 percent of the new jobs created during the 1988-2000 period will have required at least some college (22 percent some college; 30 percent a baccalaureate or more), given certain forecasts of the industrial composition of the labor force and assuming no changes in the occupational or educational composition of each industry (Bailey, 1991, p. 16).1

At the same time, occupational projections indicate that actual college going rates may be exceeding the skills requirements of the economy. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) finds that 20 percent of college graduates in the years 1984-1990 were either unemployed or worked in jobs that did not require a four-year college degree. And the BLS projects that this percentage will rise to 30 percent over the 1990-2005 period (in Shelley, 1992, p. 17). Moreover, looking cross-nationally, one has to wonder why higher education is so much more massive in the United States than in other advanced industrialized societies. Does our economy really demand higher-level skills than do the economies of Japan, Germany, and so forth?

These problems indicate that employer skill demands and democratic values alone cannot explain the massive expansion of American higher education. Taking a cue from Pierre Bourdieu (Swartz, in press), we should consider another explanation as well: changing strategies of class reproduction. During the last twenty-five years, real wages have been dropping for high school graduates (Bluestone, 1994, p. 82; Murphy & Welch, 1989, p. 20). Presumably, students are compensating for this by increasingly going to college. They are acquiring college education in order to achieve the pay and job security the previous generation could secure with high school diplomas only. But what then are the consequences of greater pursuit of college education when, to a significant extent, it is a defensive strategy of class reproduction?



Whatever its impact on economic attainment, much greater college access will probably have positive attitudinal impacts. Mass higher education will greatly expand the beneficiaries of higher education’s enduring effects of greater altruism and humanitarianism, political knowledge and involvement, political tolerance, and support for civil rights and civil liberties (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991, pp. 286-292).2

Second, it has been argued that the expansion of higher education has resulted in greater equality of opportunity. Michael Hout (1988) has found that over the last thirty-five years the effect of parents’ occupational status on their children’s adult occupational status has declined substantially. For people age twenty to sixty-four in 1982-1985 the association between the levels of occupational status and their father’s when they were age sixteen was about one-third lower than it was. for the same age group in 1972-1975. In turn, the father-son correlation for men age twenty to sixty-four in 1973 was 28 percent lower than for men the same age in 1962 (Hout, 1988, pp. 1360, 1376). According to Hout, the main reason for this decline is the increase in baccalaureate attainment. Class Background has much less effect on the adult occupational attainment of college graduates than it does on the attainment of those with less education (pp. 1388-1389, 1397).

While this may be true for baccalaureate-recipients, inequalities of higher education still play a major role in generating inequalities in adult success. Many people never enter college or graduate with a baccalaureate degree, and there are big differences by social background in the amount and type of higher education that people get. To begin with, the great expansion in college going has still left huge differences in rates of college access. For example, among high school seniors in 1972, 85 percent of those in the top quartile in socioeconomic status (SES), but only 42 percent of those in the lowest quartile, went on to college within two years of graduation, yielding a gap of 43 percentage points. Twenty years later, this social-class gap was virtually unchanged: 42 percentage points (91 percent versus 49 percent) (U.S. Department of Education, 1997, p. 68). And in the case of race, the gap in college attendance has widened, even as more and more blacks and Hispanics have gone to college. Between 1972 and 1994, the percentage of high school graduates who enrolled in college the following year increased from 45 percent to percent for blacks, but the percentage for white high school graduates vaulted from 50 percent to 64 percent (U.S. Department of Education, 1997: p. 66).3

The social-class gap in access may begin to close as we encounter ceiling effects. Upper-class children have little room to further raise their already stratospheric college-going rates. However, we arc far from encountering ceiling effects in terms of the racial/ethnic gap in access. Moreover, even if the gap in college access closes, other forms of collegiate differentiation will still remain and may even get worse, particularly differences in type of college attended and type and level of degrees secured.

As college entrance rates have risen, the class gap in type of college attended has widened. Among college goers in the top quartile in socioeconomic status, about 18 percent entered through two-year colleges in both 1972 and 1992. But among college goers in the bottom SES quartile, the proportion entering through two-year colleges rose from 27 percent in 1972 to 45 percent in 1992. As a result, by 1992, low SES collegians were nearly three times more likely to enter two-year colleges than were top SES students (U.S. Department of Education, 1997, p. 68)4 This gap in type of college attended is consequential because, all other things being equal, entrants to two-year colleges secure significantly fewer years of education, baccalaureate degrees, and prestigious jobs than do entrants to four-year colleges (although there is some controversy over whether they secure poorer incomes) (Dougherty, 1994).

As college entrance continues to widen, college goers from advantaged backgrounds may also maintain an edge through their choice of majors. Men still tend to select the more remunerative college majors (Jacobs, 1995) and the same presumably holds for upper-class and white college goers.

Finally, more advantaged college goers may also maintain a competitive advantage in the form of more advanced degrees than their less advantaged counterparts. The number of master’s and first professional degree awards skyrocketed from 242,869 in 1969-1970 to 426,984 in 1991-1992 (an increase of 76 percent). And again there is a class difference: Whereas 2.2 percent of 1980 high school seniors with parents in the top quartile in SES had secured graduate or first professional degrees by spring 1986, only 0.2 percent of their bottom SES quartile counterparts had done as well (U.S. Department of Education, 1994, pp. 245, 307).

But even if we fully accept Hout’s (1988) statement that greater college going has substantially increased equality of opportunity, we are left with a key problem: Increasing equality of opportunity has not resulted in greater equality of result. In fact, the opposite has occurred. During the last twenty years, there has been a sharp increase in class inequality, with the top 20 percent of families increasing their share of all family income from 40.9 percent of all family income in 1970 to 46.9 percent in 1994, while the share going to the bottom 20 percent dropped from 5.4 to 4.2 percent (U.S. Census Bureau, 1996, p. 467). As a result, the income ratio between the top and bottom 20 percent of families rocketed from 7.6:1 to 11.2 to 1.5 During the mid-1980s when its income ratio was 8.6:1, the United States was already well above the average of 6.5:1 for twenty “high-income” industrialized capitalist societies across the world (World Bank, 1990, p. 237). But the recent rise to 11.2:1.5 may put the United States even more toward the extreme of class inequality.

Many things contribute to rising class inequality in the United States. One, ironically, is the rising wage premium for college graduates. But there are also many other factors that are only weakly related to education: weakening unions, corporate downsizing, government deregulation and intensified competition in certain industries, the shift toward a service-based economy, companies moving production facilities abroad, and growing trade competition with other countries (Bluestone, 1994, pp. 84-87).


Perhaps the most important negative consequence of mass higher education is expense. It will cost college students, their families, and our society a huge amount of money to finance a large increase in college going:

Moreover, accelerating the expansion of higher education-as President Clinton suggested in his 1997 State of the Union proposal for tax deductions and tax credits for college tuition (Burd, 1997)—may well siphon off money that could go toward improving K-12 education. Moreover, it may weaken the drive to reform precollegiate education, because people will be tempted to rectify poor high school education through remedial education in college rather than undertaking the important but much more difficult route of improving K-12 achievement.

Finally, further expansion of higher education will cost colleges by bringing in many students who are not very motivated academically. To be sure, expansion will bring in many able students who previously were barred by poverty from going to college and thus richly deserve a chance. But college expansion also will bring in other students who would prefer to avoid college but feel compelled to attend by declining real wages for high school graduates. Consequently, colleges may have to substantially increase their already very sizable remedial education efforts [U.S. Department of Education, 1997, p. 106). Moreover, colleges will have to find new ways to motivate students in the face of an increasing number who have little enthusiasm for, and put little effort into, their college studies.


Given the uncertain benefits-of universalizing higher education and the possibility of substantial costs, it should be treated cautiously, both as a social phenomenon and as a political proposal. We need to think carefully about its social and institutional consequences. For those who primarily view universal higher education as an instrument of social and economic equalization, it is important to keep in mind that educational reform is a rather indirect means to combat the many macroeconomic forces that are widening class inequality, such as the movement of manufacturing plants abroad. To be sure, educational reform is an important device in the pursuit of social equality, but we should never take it to be the primary one. However, this goes against the long-standing American tendency, so different from Europe, to pursue social meliorism as much or more through educational programs as through social-welfare programs (Heidenheimer, 1981); that is, to favor an educational state over the welfare state.


Bailey, T. (1991). Jobs of the future and the education they will require. Educational Researcher, 20, 11-20.

Bluestone, B. (1994). The inequality express. The American Prospect, 20, 81-93.

Burd, S. (1997). President pushes tax breaks to help families afford college. Chronicle of Higher Education, 43, A33-34.

Collins, R. (1979). The credential society. New York: Academic Press.

Cremin, L. A. (1977). Traditions of American education. New York: Basic Books.

Dougherty, K. (1994). The contradictory college: The conflicting origins, outcomes, and futures of the community college. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Hecker, D. E. (1992, July). Reconciling conflicting data on jobs for college graduates. Monthly Labor Review, pp. 3-12.

Heidenheimer, A. (1981). Education and social security entitlements in Europe and America. In P. Flora &A. Heidenheimer (Eds.), The developments of welfare states in Europe and America (pp. 269-304). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books.

Hout, M. (1988). More universalism, less structural mobility: The American occupational structure in the 1980s. American Journal of Sociology, 93, 1358-1400.

Jacobs, J. A. (1995). Gender and academic specialties: Trends among recipients of college degrees in the 1980s. Sociology of Education, 68, 81-98.

Kerbo, H. (1996). Social stratification (3rd ed.). New York McGraw-Hill.

Murphy, K., & Welch, F. (1989). Wage premiums for college graduates: Recent growth and possible explanations. Educational Researcher, 18, 17-26.

Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (1991). Now college affects students. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Shelley, K. J. (1992, July). The future of jobs for college graduates. Monthly Labor Review, pp. 13-21.

Swartz, D. (In press). Pierre Bourdieu. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Trow, M. (1962). The democratization of higher education in America. European Journal of Sociology, 33, 231-260.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 99 Number 1, 1997, p. 66-71
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10384, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 2:53:30 AM

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  • Kevin Dougherty
    Manhattan College

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