Nov. 2014 Advocate – Book review

Book Review

How the dream of American higher education has been sabotaged by social inequality and plutocracy

by Tom Mohr, Trustee, San Mateo County Community College District


Mettler, Suzanne. Degrees of Inequality. How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream. Basic Books,  New York, 2014

We educators have been greatly dismayed for several years concerning the crisis within higher education. We live it daily, having witnessed first-hand how the severe reductions in budgets and classes have eroded young people’s opportunities for establishing dreams and charting clear, doable paths to goals that could bring them and their children rewards that most Americans believe to be their birthright as citizens of this great republic. It is relatively easy for us to focus on the phenomena of high tuition, high student debt and weak employment prospects in a slow moving economy, but there is much more to identifying and understanding the etiology of the higher education crisis. Suzanne Mettler, Professor of Government at Cornell University, draws for us a more complete picture of this crisis, bringing forward with coherence and interconnectedness the forces that, taken together, have resulted in America’s disinvestment in and squandering of the great legacy of higher education so long considered throughout the world to be a model of excellence and accessible to an increasingly diverse citizenry.

College completion rates directly reflect socio-economic level

Mettler begins with data that demonstrates that the rates of college graduates are distressingly unequal when understood according to socio-economic level, highlighting the striking advantage of the affluent in relation to the bottom three quartiles of the U.S. population. For middle-income Americans, the graduation rate hovers around 30%, and for those Americans in the lower middle quartile, the college completion rate over the last fifty years has increased a meager 11%. Income equality is paramount. Within the highest income group, 97% of entering students complete college while among those in the lowest quartile, the completion rate is approximately 23%.
What has gone wrong? Landmark policy achievements in the middle of the last century, from the GI Bill through Pell grants, helped the US become the world’s leader in college graduation rates. They provided for individuals from across the income spectrum genuine opportunity to attain college degrees.  In more recent years, however, we’ve seen the relentless ascent of tuition and fees and the assumption of heavy debt by the majority of college graduates. These developments discourage many students from staying in college long enough to graduate and they promote rising indebtedness that for some, depending to some extent on the college major and the remuneration of the career undertaken, can readily lead to financial ruin or, at the very least, job choices that were assuredly not the original intention of the graduate.

The wealthy control political decision-making

The problem, as described by the author, is not that the policies that made higher education accessible and affordable for millions of Americans were eliminated, but that new political forces, becoming gradually more powerful after 1980, have made the necessary maintenance and updating of these policies impossible. In the political context of the time, the policies that had been so effective from the 1940s to the 1970s produced new political dynamics and new unintended consequences that affect the resources, incentives and power of political leaders and their organizations. Whatever the development of policies over time and whatever subsequent effects and evolution of policies there may be, new political work must be accomplished by national and state leaders if the affordability and accessibility of college for all are to be protected.
Policies affecting higher education and students today, explains Mettler, need the attention of renovators who know not only what changes in old laws and policies are necessary but who also have the ability to convince highly polarized political bodies that support for the changes is in the interest of the people. Unfortunately, the rise of political partisanship has prevented the development of any bipartisan leadership that could lead to constructive and meaningful change in old policies and laws.
In the midst of rigid stalemate, only the influence of the wealthy seems able to capture the cooperation of those in either party. The rise of the Plutocracy explains, according to scholars who have studied lawmaking for decades, why public officials have so remarkably adhered to the preferences of the affluent and why, concerning whatever issue is before them, they seem only to respond to the vested interests of the  elite. It is unfortunately true that “money talks” more loudly than ever before, and, given the cost of running and succeeding in politics today, that voice gets the attention of lawmakers and gains the support necessary to shape policy and law that enhances the profits and tax advantages of the powerful.

For-profit colleges enrich investors at the expense of the public

The author’s scholarship, involving rigorous and through examination of the record and the use of extensive interviews, clearly describes how the for-profit colleges  participate in extensive profiteering that enriches investors at the expense of the public and the students they allegedly serve. Despite widespread concern by lawmakers, investors have made escalating profits (even during the recession) through the use of federal dollars and have taken opportunistic advantage of veterans and the dollars accorded by the new GI Bill.  And even though their abysmal graduation and employment records and the unethical marketing, recruiting and lending practices have been reported widely, the for-profits are still able to overcome the efforts to regulate their almost unfettered use of federal money and the concomitant creation of debilitating student debt through the use of a lobby that leverages their protection with the lavishing of money. When the Obama Administration announced its intent to limit the use of federal dollars through the application of measured for-profit college outcomes, a firestorm resulted. The for-profit lobby brought to bear 11 million dollars of influence that created a coalition from both parties necessary to bury such actions. The presence of plutocratic power overcame the political stalemate and made possible bipartisanship that no one would have thought possible.
In Suzanne Mettler’s book, the reader is brought to a close understanding of the nature of the higher education crisis, why the system is unable, despite original intention and use of law and policy, to provide access to affordable education to all who aspire to a college degree, and why it is shaped presently to the advantage of the affluent and powerful. Her work brings into sharp focus the political forces burgeoning in Washington that make it possible to forgo the voice of the people and contrarily exacerbate social inequality.