Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Unequal Colleges in the Age of Disparity

reviewed by Dena Kniess - May 10, 2018

coverTitle: Unequal Colleges in the Age of Disparity
Author(s): Charles T. Clotfelter
Publisher: Belknap Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674975715, Pages: 448, Year: 2017
Search for book at Amazon.com

Over the past four decades, college leaders have claimed their institutions are a source of upward mobility. Clotfelter’s Unequal Colleges in the Age of Disparity indicates that colleges are more unequal today than they were in the 1970s. Using the Freshmen Survey data from 1970 to the present, Clotfelter presents an analysis of the growing disparity between the most and least selective colleges in the United States. Throughout the book, readers will find a descriptive analysis of the changes in the economic landscape affecting higher education.

The book is divided into four sections: “Context,” “Supply,” “Demand,” and “Consequences.” In the 1970s, the economic conditions in the United States were changing. High paying jobs in manufacturing that employed individuals straight out of high school were being replaced with jobs in a growing knowledge economy, giving rise to what was termed the “college earnings advantage” (p. 78). The timing was fortuitous for U.S. colleges, which had been struggling financially and where student protests of the Vietnam War had left college leaders wondering how to keep their campuses peaceful and safe. Several factors contributed to the trend of increased college access at this time, including government support through the Pell Grant and other state-financed merit scholarships such as Georgia’s HOPE scholarship. As access to college increased, so did the prestige of selective colleges, a trend heralded by the publication of the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges, which ranked colleges according to factors such as student SAT scores, faculty-to-student ratios, and faculty salaries. Students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds began to flock to these elite institutions, which had more resources in terms of facilities, faculty, and money to spend on students.

Throughout the book, the main theme revolves around the Matthew effect; the ability of rich colleges to get richer based on the wealth of their students and donations from noted alumni. As I read the text, I questioned how we might change this system. How do we disrupt the systemic advantages afforded to elite colleges? What new metrics need to emerge in order to measure colleges by their outcomes, not just their inputs (i.e., information on incoming students)? In Chapter Four, Clotfelter discusses Washington Monthly’s 2005 ranking of colleges according to outcomes, which included metrics such as the number of students who went on to earn PhDs or enter the Peace Corps or ROTC. A different set of colleges emerged at the top; namely, more public institutions as opposed to the elite private colleges.

At the end of the text, Clotfelter admits his own personal interest in the topic as an individual who has witnessed these changes from the perspective of a student, professor, administrator, and parent. On a somewhat pessimistic note, he argues that colleges have maintained the status quo ever since they were founded, serving the wealthy elite and furthering economic inequality.

Clotfelter’s Unequal Colleges in the Age of Disparity is well-written and contains several data points that illustrate the growing socioeconomic inequality in the U.S. and higher education’s role in perpetuating it. Policy makers and higher education leaders should use this book to spur discussion and subsequent action to address these growing inequities.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 10, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22365, Date Accessed: 1/24/2022 9:19:32 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Dena Kniess
    University of West Georgia
    E-mail Author
    DENA R. KNIESS is an assistant professor in the College Student Affairs program at the University of West Georgia. She has recently published the article "Mentoring Fatherless, Inner-City Adolescent Boys Through an Outcome-Based Leadership Education Program" with Dr. Eric Buschlen and Dr. Tzu-Fen Chang in The Journal of Leadership Education as well as three articles in the New Directions for Institutional Research publication Current Issues and Opportunities in Student Affairs Assessment. Dena is currently involved in a research project on the administrator-to-faculty transition with Dr. Mimi Benjamin and Dr. Michelle Boettcher.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue