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middle-class careers.
Calls for greater efficiency in higher education are often
touted as a way to squeeze more from the systemwithout
allocating additional resources. Although more efficiency
in postsecondary education is necessary, simply increasing
professor course-loads and cutting services without addressing
the way that we allocate funding in higher education is likely
to result in further stratification of our already inequitable
system. Currently, the bulk of the resources of our higher
education system are going to institutions concentrated at the
top of the postsecondary hierarchy, and the fewest resources
are allocated to the institutions that serve the majority of
postsecondary students—especially the community colleges,
which serve 43 percent of all undergraduate students. Only
about seven percent of students are enrolled in institutions
that spend more than $25,000 per enrollee, while almost half
of students enroll in institutions that spend less than $10,000
per enrollee. Differences in spending at private schools and
public schools amount to $6,000 to $20,000 per student, per
year—or up to $80,000 over four years.
These discrepancies are not just between public and elite,
private institutions. On average, differences in spending
public institutions run about $4,000 per student per
year—or $16,000 over the course of four years of study. These
gaps are growing as spending at two-year institutions declines,
spending at four-year public institutions remains flat, and
spending at private, four-year institutions grows.
This growing stratification is not just about money; it is
also about the individual empowerment that money buys.
Those with access to the brand-name four-year colleges are on
their way to professions that not only deliver higher earnings
but also bring higher levels of personal empowerment at
work and in our society at large. Those who end up in the
less selective colleges find their way into jobs, and more
narrow social roles, in the rank-and-file professions like K–12
teaching and the uniformed services. Those with certificates
and associate’s degrees tend to find their way into even more
narrow roles as
technicians and para-
professionals. The least
advantaged, those
with no postsecondary
credential, risk life-long
economic and social
The institutions
that we are
underfunding not
only serve the majority
of students, but they
are also far more
likely to serve low-income, older and minority students.
The inequitable distribution of resources has detrimental
impacts on access, quality and completion in the system,
and consequently it has enormous impact on the economic
mobility of individuals in our society at large.
The increasingly powerful role of postsecondary education
as the arbiter of economic and social empowerment is not
a problem by itself; the problem is the
mounting evidence that postsecondary
access and selectivity may be becoming
an institutional device to perpetuate
intergenerational reproduction of social
stratification. The only way to ensure that
these trends don’t solidify is to make high-
quality postsecondary education more
The point is not to take away all the
money allocated to elite institutions
and spread it around. Siphoning money
from these institutions is not a solution.
Elite institutions are well-funded, but redistributing their
resources would only level down quality to the lowest
common denominator across the system. If we cannot move
large numbers of these less-advantaged students into the
higher-priced and higher-quality programs at the selective
colleges, then we may need to move quality programs, and the
additional money to pay for them, to the community colleges
and less selective four-year colleges where the least advantaged
are currently enrolled.
Without resolving the inequality in the way we fund the
institutions in our postsecondary education system, greater
efficiency is likely to perpetuate a cycle where the privileged
alone have access to the skills and credentials necessary to lead
in the 21st-century economy. The economic consequences
of failure to act are costly—and the social consequences are
Anthony P. Carnevale is director of the Georgetown University
Center on Education and theWorkforce.
Michelle Melton is a research analyst at the Georgetown
University Center on Education and theWorkforce.
Irrespective of the
current economic
individuals need to
consider college
as a life-long
investment decision.
Investing in schools
and higher education
is an easy political
applause line, but it
is often neglected in
the budget line.