Friday, January 27, 2006

Social Inclusion in Tertiary Education

When I meet with European colleagues at the annual meeting of the European Access Network I am struck by their commitment to "social inclusion" in tertiary education. It is a term they use often. This is not a term I hear in policy dialogue in the United States. And I have come to think its not just a difference in terminology. I do not think that American's think of higher education and social inclusion as linked in any particular way.

The Europeans speak of national commissions and ministerial reports that provide guidance to national policy makers, program designers and resource commitments to broadening opportunity for tertiary education. They link these commission reports to national initiatives. And the annual report Education at a Glance published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) provides abundant evidence that their initiatives have produced huge gains in tertiary education participation and attainment over at least the last 15 years.

Meanwhile in the United States our college participation rates have stopped growing in the 1990s (different data sets give slightly different dates), and we now have an older generation that has more higher education than does the generation of their children, according to OECD data. While the Europeans (and the rest of the world) make bold initiatives to increase the human capital of their future workforces, we have turned away from progressive social policy toward social exclusion and reinforcement of disparities in educational attainment, income and wealth.

In the United States since about 1980 we have come to practice social exclusion. This began with federal retreat from need-based financial aid, with state decisions to shift the costs of higher education from taxpayers to students and to create large merit scholarship programs, and with self-indulgent enrollment management practices of selective admission 4-year colleges and universities that focus on students born into affluence.

In the short term the enrollment consequences of the shift from the socially inclusive policies of the 1960s and 1970s to the socially exclusive policies of the 1980s, 1990s and this decade are now clear in higher education participation and distribution data. College participation rates have been stagnant since the mid 1990s, low income and minority students are increasing excluded from 4-year institutions and are increasingly concentrated in public 2-year and proprietary institutions, the United States usually ranks last among the 30 OECD countries in gains in college participation rates since about 1990, and the gains in bachelor's degree attainment since 1980 have gone overwhelmingly to students born into the top quartile of family income (about $96,000 per year).

In the long term the economic and social consequences of the shift from social inclusion to social exclusion will mean that higher education is causing income concentration, political disengagement and social, racial and class segregation. The failure to sustain a national commitment to social inclusion (won over dead bodies in the brutal 1960s) is leading us to the injustices likely to repeat the cycle. The social exclusion choices we have made in federal, state and institutional higher education policies since 1980 are leading us back to conditions that by thoughtful choice no one should ever want to repeat.


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