In February of this year, scholars released an analysis of a massive data set of 30 million college students born between 1980 and 1991, that included their economic backgrounds, college attended, and post-college earnings. The findings provide us with an opportunity to revisit a long-standing concern with justice and equal opportunity in higher education.[1]

There has been much attention in recent years to whether lower income students are adequately represented at selective colleges, especially elite colleges. Some of those colleges have made serious efforts to admit a higher proportion of lower income students. The public discourse around these efforts generally operates with a tacit theory of equality of opportunity—that equality of opportunity entails that access to higher rungs on the existing hierarchy of colleges and universities be less dependent on a student’s financial resource background, and closer to being based on “merit,” however conceived. This is a milder version of the philosophic position taken by Rawls and other political philosophers, that such access be entirely independent of resource background and dependent only on talent and effort.

What the Chetty et al study mentioned above finds is that “the proportion of students from the richest 1% of families has increased during the last decade, while the proportion from the bottom 40% has decreased” and “[M]ore students come from families in the top 1% of the income distribution than the bottom half.” The study focused on “Ivy Plus” colleges and universities (Ivy League plus Stanford, MIT, Duke, and the University of Chicago), but the trends are no doubt shared among selective schools.[2] So in fact our higher education system is not moving toward the view of equality of opportunity mentioned.

This result is undoubtedly disturbing from a justice vantage point. But in thinking about the situation, I want to suggest that we revise the “access to higher rungs in the current hierarchy” conception of equality of opportunity. The problem (or anyway, one problem) with that view is that it does not apply critical scrutiny to the distance between the rungs on the educational hierarchy. “Distance between rungs” is the degree to which a given rung provides access to valued positions in society in comparison to the next lower or higher rung, or another lower or higher rung. (Obviously the rungs are not fixed or even definite positions on the hierarchy in question. The idea of “rungs” is an ideal type.)

Suppose we have a hierarchy consisting of, let us call them, “Ivy Plus,” “Other Elite,” “State U/flagship,” and “State U/non-flagship.” And suppose the chances of a random graduate of each of these rungs attaining a highly desirable job upon graduation (bracketing issues of graduate education) are 80%, 65%, 40%, and 20%. These figures can then be seen as defining the rungs, with respect to the distance between them.

We don’t know what the actual figures are. But it is striking that discussions of justice in higher education virtually never engage with determining them (or even acknowledging them), and asking whether the figures and distances are somehow just, fair, or appropriate. Is the “quality” of the average Other Elite graduate compared to the State U/non-flagship graduate such as to justify the (postulated) 25% advantage the former has over the latter in the job market? If not, the situation seems unjust from an equality of opportunity perspective.

But the results of the Chetty study imply that the quality differences between Ivy/Other Elite and State U/flagship and non-flagship graduates is probably less than is generally thought, and in any case is shrinking. One need not take a stand on whether intellectual potential is absolutely evenly distributed among income-defined groups to recognize that these figures imply that money is having a strong impact than intellectual potential on the rung/level of college in which different applicants end up.[3]

Money can swamp intellectual potential by way of various factors and processes. More financially advantaged families can provide extra application-enhancing activities and enrichments to their offspring that low-income families cannot. Students from lower income groups are sometimes not able to attend more highly ranked colleges even if they are admitted, because of not receiving financial aid or not wanting to take on huge student debt, while students from advantaged backgrounds do not have this problem.

The upshot of these factors is that students with more intellectual potential but less family money end up at lesser-ranked institutions, while students with less potential but more family money end up at more highly ranked ones. And the Chetty study shows that this result has not changed and if anything has gotten worse since 2000. (This is not unsurprising since, despite the efforts mentioned earlier to improve the numbers of low- income students at Ivy Plus and Other Elites, income inequality has gotten worse over this period.)

Since “quality of student” is an important standard factor in a college’s reputation, and of its distance from other colleges on the reputational hierarchy, this line of thought suggests that the distance among the four ideal types is considerably smaller than the percentages hypothesized above. It suggests that, in general, there are many students attending rung X colleges who are superior in intellectual potential to students attending X+1, and inferior to those at X-1, and similarly, though to a lesser extent, at X+2 and X-2. Students graduating from State U/non-flagship should not have a 20% shot at a good job, compared to 60% at Other Elite. The probabilities for desirable jobs should be much closer together among graduates of the different types of institution. Were this to happen, there would be a good deal more equalizing of opportunity than merely increasing the percentage of low-income students at Ivy Plus and Other Elite. A vastly greater number of low-income students—those at State U’s—would have a better shot at having their life prospects match their intellectual potential than under the current rung structure coupled with the current (apparently not particularly successful) attempt to get more such students into Ivy Plus and Other Elite.

How might this “rung shrinkage” be accomplished? Roughly there are two sorts of approach. First, the prestige rankings, both quasi-official (e.g. US News and World Report college rankings) and popular thinking, could aim to shrink the current distance between successive rungs. The former could do so by explicitly calling attention to this issue in its published rankings; this would hopefully have some impact on the latter.

Second, state universities serving vast numbers of low-income students could be strengthened. These institutions have been increasingly defunded by their states in the past 20 or so years, and if this trend were reversed, more low-income students could attend these institutions than do now, and could graduate with less debt, thus better positioning them to find life options suited to their inclinations and abilities.[4]

The Chetty study begins with the questions “Which colleges in America contribute the most to helping children climb the income ladder?” and “How can we increase access to such colleges for children from low income families?” The study agrees with my argument that discussion of these questions should not be confined to the most selective colleges. But it fails to recognize a third question that should also be asked, “How can our system of colleges provide children from all income groups with equivalent opportunities for life success?” And the answer to this question should prompt a revision of the college ranking system not contemplated by the authors’ first two questions.

Equality of opportunity is not only about increasing merit-based access on the part of low-income students to high prestige institutions. It is also about increasing merit-based access of low-income students to desirable life chances, by way of ensuring that the colleges they attend provide them with such opportunities. This can only happen if the overall system of college rankings shrinks the current distance between prestige rungs. That shrinkage is warranted, in part, by the increasing income divergence among students at state universities and elite universities and the attendant divergence between student intellectual potential and college rank.

[1] Raj Chetty, John N. Friedman, Emmanuel Saez, Nicholas Turner, Danny Yagan, “Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility,” The Equality of Opportunity Project (n.d. but reported as February 2017).

[2] As the study points out, this does not mean that the efforts to enroll more low income students have been ineffective, as it is quite possible that the disparities would be greater in the absence of those efforts. Increasing income inequality and its correlates is likely to have intensified the disparities in question.

[3] The study says, “Children with parents in the top 1% are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy Plus college than children with parents in the bottom 20%.”

[4] In Massachusetts, in 1985 the state funded 75% of the budget of the state university system. Last year it was c. 30%.

One Reply to “Justice and equal opportunity in higher education”

  1. Hi Larry,

    Very interesting post. In the light of your argument, it seems clearly right that we should think about how to shrink the distances between the prestige rungs, and not just focus on access to the top rung.

    I am wondering what might help shrink the rung distances. I assume that job prospects are partially a function of the contacts one has when one finishes and the overall status of one’s school, so we could think the rung distances by improving the status and alumni networks of lower rung schools. I wonder what could be done to support/grow alumni networks for those schools?

    When is comes to rankings, I wonder what sorts of changes might help. Imagine if we had data on life-satisfaction/long term well-being in addition to income for graduates and used that to rank schools. We could also usefully gather and assess that data for majors. My assumption would be that lower rung schools (and lower prestige majors) in the current system might do better than expected (comparatively) when it comes to generating happy people and that this might improve the public status/rankings of the lower ranked schools – and that this could then, ideally, help shrink the rung distances that we see when we focus on access to high paying jobs.

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