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Understanding Inequalities in, through and by Higher Education

reviewed by Edward St. John & Lijing Yang - February 15, 2011

coverTitle: Understanding Inequalities in, through and by Higher Education
Author(s): GaŽle Goastellec
Publisher: Sense Publishers, Rotterdam
ISBN: 9460913067, Pages: 158, Year: 2010
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In the introduction to Understanding Inequalities in, through and by Higher Education, Goastellec addresses “re-contextualization” of inequality of access within a global period of transition to universal access as being related to the “diminution of public funding per student” (p. xi), but the chapters in the book explore other causes and consequences of inequality. Two major topics are addressed: social reproduction and academic careers.

Some authors assume inequality in student access is related to stratification and the reproduction of social inequalities in education. Vukasović and Sarrico (Chapter 1) argue there is an inequality cycle:

a person’s initial socio-economic inequality (which could be seen through possession of, or lack of Bourdieu’s three types of capital) contributes to the emergence of educational inequality (in terms of enrollment, progression or quality of learning outcomes, quality and prestige of institutions, track distinction, socialization in school environments or academia, etc.). (p. 12)

Jaoul-Grammare (Chapter 3) drills into survey data of students in France to examine ability and socioeconomic status as explanations for inequality in enrollment opportunity in higher education as it expands, a form of work subject to omitted variable bias due to excluding financial explanations in unequal access (e.g., Becker, 2004; Heller, 2004). Schmidt (Chapter 4) carries forward the social inequalities argument in a study of U.S. community colleges. Wakeling (Chapter 5) addresses the social theme in an examination of comparative research on access to graduate education, finding growth in undergraduate enrollment has spilled over into graduate enrollment, which appears to be “in expansion mode internationally” (p. 63). Carrying forward this theme of social origins of inequality, Michele Moses examines the roles of affirmative action in reducing inequality (Chapter 2). Her examination of the mechanisms of and reasoning for government action for reducing inequality are well worth reading. However none of these chapters pick up the problem of unequal funding of institutions or the role of student subsidies in promoting equal opportunity.

Cret and Musselin (Chapter 6) examine inequality in higher education using a temporal frame. Examining questionnaires completed by doctoral students between 1990 and 2005 at the University of Laussanne, they find that “pressure rates on a position are not static and depend on the number of available positions as well as the candidates at a given time” (p. 87). They reduce inequalities in hiring and promotion to not being “in the right place at the right time” and not to “selection principles themselves” (p. 88). Fassa and Gauther (Chapter 7) explore gender inequalities in academic careers in Germany. Their conclusion merits pondering: women’s engagement in the private sphere, including family, contrasts to male’s engagement in the public sphere, creating difficult conditions for women who “will not be able to contribute on the same footing as their male counterparts to the renown of the Faculties in which they work.” Kaulisch and Böhmer (Chapter 8) use quantitative data to examine career paths in German higher education. They find that inequalities remain but conclude: “the task of selecting from good applicants those who will prove to be the best researchers is too much to ask of peer reviewers…” (p. 120).  

The authors in this volume take a collective step toward examining inequalities in opportunities in the pipeline. In the conclusion, Gaële Goastellec offers a definition of inequality: “Inequalities in higher education can be defined as differences in accessibility that cannot be defined only by academic abilities” (p. 123). This definition is consistent with other literature on access (Yang, 2011). Goastellec also provides an original framing of the problem that merits attention and offers a direction for future inquiry into this important topic:

Questioning inequalities in, through, and by higher education consists in measuring the “qualitative access” of traditionally under-represented groups to the public goods linked to higher education. Achieving such an understanding implies two approaches. On the one hand, a systematic, statistical modeling approach questioning the variables used and qualitatively discussing inequalities in, through and by higher education. On the other hand, a societal approach, taking into account interdependencies between the higher education organization market, marketplace, the forms of power structuring social organization, external constraints that influence organizations, etc. (p. 130)

This conclusion may be the most important contribution of the book because the need to explore the causes of and remedies for inequality is an ongoing challenge. Inequalities in opportunity—in, through, and by higher education—existed before the transition to mass higher education but take new forms as access expands and require a constant refining of potential solutions. As critique—a vital part of the process of building understanding—we reflect on the strengths and limitations of this volume.

There are two important strengths of the volume: it demonstrates that inequality is a concern, with respect to both the vertical pipeline of access and the horizontal differentials across institutions. In combination, the authors explore these dimensions using a mixture of methods. Social reproduction theory (e.g., Bourdieu, 1980/1990) plays a dominant role in interpretations throughout the volume. While we agree Bordieu’s theories are crucial to understanding how inequality is reproduced in a period of expanding access, it is also important to consider how this theory, when reconstructed to include social capital (e.g., Coleman, 1988) and an economic theory of capital (e.g., Becker, 1975), can help identify remedies to inequality that will expand opportunity to those who are traditionally denied access in high school to college preparation and do not attend college (St. John & Musoba, 2010).

It must be noted that other than the opening paragraphs, this volume overlooks the role of decline in public funding per student as a source of inequality and the ways alteration of public finance policies might help reduce inequality.


Becker, G. S. (1975). Human capital: A theoretical and empirical analysis, with special consideration of education (2nd ed.). New York: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Becker, W. E. (2004). Omitted variables and sample selection in studies of college-going decisions. In E. P. St. John (Ed.), Public policy and college access: Investigating the federal and state roles in equalizing postsecondary opportunity. Readings on equal education, Vol. 19 (pp. 65-86). New York: AMS Press, Inc.

Bourdieu, P. (1980/1990). The Logic of Practice (R. Nice, Trans.). Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Coleman, J. S. (1988). Social capital in the creation of human capital. American Journal of Sociology, 94, S95-S120.

Heller, D. E. (2004). NCES research on college participation: A critical analysis. In E. P. St. John (Ed.), Public policy and college access: Investigating the federal and state roles in equalizing postsecondary opportunity. Readings on equal education, Vol. 19 (pp. 29-64). New York: AMS Press, Inc.

St. John, E. P., & Musoba, G. D. (2010). Pathways to academic success: Expanding opportunity for underrepresented students. New York: Routledge.

Yang, L. (2011). World education finance and higher education access: Econometric analyses of international indicators and the implications for China. Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database (in press).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 15, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16340, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 10:31:06 AM

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About the Author
  • Edward St. John
    University of Michigan
    E-mail Author
    EDWARD P. ST. JOHN, Algo D. Henderson Collegiate Professor of Higher Education, is primarily concerned with education for a just society, an interest that stems from three decades of research on educational policy. He is a Fellow of the American Educational Research Association and recipient of the ASHE research and leadership awards. He is currently working with a team of graduate students to complete College Prep: Transforming High Schools, Overcoming Failed Public Policy, and Preparing Students for Higher Education, under contract with John Hopkins University Press.
  • Lijing Yang
    University of Michigan
    E-mail Author
    LIJING YANG recently completed her Ph.D. in Higher Education from the University of Michigan. Her current research focuses on higher education policy and international higher education. Her dissertation employs econometrics to examine how educational finance policies have affected college access across 100 developed and less developed countries.
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