We’ve used this space more than once to ask whether college students get enough of a return on their tuition investment. What we haven’t examined so closely is what effect the cost of higher education is having on equality of opportunity.
According to Cornell University political scientist Suzanne Mettler, the answer is: a tremendously negative one.
Up until the 1980s, Americans had a system of higher education “characterized by excellence and wide accessibility to what seemed to be an ever wider and more diverse group of citizens,” Mettler writes in her new book Degrees of Inequality. Today, however, “we are squandering” that achievement, placing college ever farther out of reach for low-income Americans.
While three-quarters of students from the families of the wealthiest Americans earn college degrees by the age of 24, only one in 10 of the lowest-income students do the same. The forces of “polarization and plutocracy” are largely to blame, Mettler maintains. And the result is a “sabotaged” American dream.
We don’t know what Peter Drucker would have made of Mettler’s argument that tight-fisted politicians are largely to blame for creating this “plutocracy,” and reviews have ranged from sympathetic to skeptical on this point. However, regarding the symptoms, Drucker would indeed have been alarmed.
In The New Realities, he asserted that it was “the social responsibility of education to prevent ‘meritocracy’ from degenerating into ‘plutocracy’” and that “care must be taken lest the diploma becomes a barrier to ability rather than a recognition thereof.”
Interestingly, Drucker saw such problems cropping up in a country that might not be considered high on the list of suspects: Japan. “The Japanese university charges no or very low tuition,” Drucker wrote. “Yet increasingly it is the children of the wealthy who get into the prestige universities and thus gain access to the promising careers in both government and industry.” This was because families that could provide their children enough time and space to prepare academically for all the requisite testing were necessarily wealthier.
In Drucker’s view, one of the best ways to prevent students from being excluded from school because of high tuition or loan costs was to require repayment later in a student’s life based only on the “value added” by the degree.
“Unless the professional schools find a way to get paid when their graduates are able to pay out of the value added by the professional degree,” Drucker wrote in The Frontiers of Management, “they may soon find that they have priced themselves beyond the reach of all but the children of the rich.”
What do you think is the best way to make college more accessible to capable students from lower-income backgrounds?