Class Segregation of Higher Education
It is no secret that higher education is divided along class lines. We recently calculated median parental income for dependent undergraduate students by institutional sector from the 2004 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study. There results were:
- Private 4-year colleges and universities: $67,534
- Public 4-year colleges and universities: $63,888
- Public 2-year colleges: $53,010
- Private less than 4-year: $47,279
- Proprietary: $36,469
- All: $59,505
- Private 4-year colleges and universities: +3.2%
- Public 4-year colleges and universities: +5.8%
- Public 2-year colleges: -2.4%
- Private less than 4-year: -8.9%
- Proprietary: -4.5%
- All: +2.9%
What is happening is that under regressive federal, state and institutional policies adopted beginning about 1980 higher education enrollments are being resorted along social class lines. Our 4-year colleges and universities are increasingly reserved for white children born into affluence, while our community colleges and proprietary schools are increasingly populated by minorities and the poor.
Different sectors of higher education produce different outcomes for the students they enroll. Thus this increasingly class-segregated and class-segregating performance of higher education deserves critical scrutiny. Is the purpose of higher education to secure the futures mainly of those born into affluence and to relegate to less prosperous lifetime paths those born into families with lower incomes? What messages do these policies and practices convey about our commitment to diversity? To community? To social harmony? To social and economic vitality? To democracy? To prosperity?
My view is that the policy choices that we made between 1862 (first Morrill Act) and about 1980 were consistently progressive, expansive and inclusive. Since about 1980 our federal, state and 4-year institution policy choices have been consistently regressive, constrictive and exclusive. The enrollment consequences of these regressive policy choices were predictable by anyone with a modicum of social science familiarity. We have deliberately chosen to protect a status quo that assures the best and most expensive higher education for those born into affluence and provides other postsecondary opportunities to the growing share of the rest of us who were born into less fortunate circumstances. Ultimately these regressive policy choices weaken and divide us, and offer a far dimmer future for the United States than what the progressive policies of the past produced.