Unequal Colleges in the Age of Disparity
reviewed by Dena Kniess - May 10, 2018
Over the past four decades, college leaders have claimed their institutions are a source of upward mobility. Clotfelters 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 Georgias 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 Monthlys 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.
Clotfelters 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 educations 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.