The price of inequality in higher education

Higher education is now less about gaining knowledge than demonstrating status: It’s about the pedigree, not the degree.

The US flag flies over Columbia Universi
The cost of attending some universities, like Columbia, above, is greater than average US household income [AFP]

Last week, an article began circulating on Facebook about the collapse of higher education.

“The adjunct crisis (of many decades) makes the New York Times,” tweeted Karen Kelsky, an anthropologist who runs The Professor Is In, a service where graduate students pay for advice on how to game the job market. The article depicts a bleak world of impoverished professors, diminishing career prospects and subpar courses providing “less educational quality to the students who need it most”.

It was several days later that everyone realised that the article was from 2007 – and that the situation had changed so little that even experts like Kelsky could not tell the difference.

For the past decade, American higher education has been marked by the explosion of debt and the erosion of opportunity. As college presidents’ salaries balloon into the millions of dollars and schools spend record amounts on lavish infrastructure, contingent faculty subsist on poverty wages while students take out massive loans in the pursuit of career stability they rarely find.

In 2012, student debt surpassed $1tn for the first time. Tuition has skyrocketed to the point that some schools cost more annually than the average household income. Grade inflation is so rampant that more than 43 percent of grades given out at four-year universities are A’s. Within the classroom and outside of it, knowledge and ability are devalued over the rote accumulation of accolades – marks and degrees that reveal less about the promise of the individual than the decay of the system.

More than 50 percent of faculty positions in political science departments were filled by graduates from 11 schools.

Critics of American higher education often point to a culture of greed – one that rewards presidents over professors and luxury over learning. But while the system may be structured on greed, it is powered by fear. Professors fear losing their jobs if they protest a crumbling system, while students fear searching for a job without a degree. Seeing no other options, they check the boxes and write the checks.

In recent years, MOOCs – massive online open courses – have been proposed as an alternative. MOOCs make higher education accessible and affordable, proponents argue, eliminating the financial barriers that derail equal access to knowledge. They fail to see that MOOCs have an inherent weakness. Higher education today is less about the accumulation of knowledge than the demonstration of status – a status conferred by pre-existing wealth and connections. It is not about the degree, but the pedigree.

‘Access’ and class

On December 5, a study was released showing that more than 50 percent of faculty positions in political science departments were filled by graduates from 11 schools, out of the 116 schools that offer doctorates. Most of the 11 schools were located in the most expensive cities in America.

Robert Oprisko, the author of the study, argues that institutional prestige has trumped individual merit. “It’s about access. It’s about class,” he says. “Access” in higher education means the ability to supplement the meagre funding offered on merit with personal resources. For wealthy students, attending a funded programme in an expensive city is easy. For the rest of the population, it means taking on debt – debt that new statistics reveal is disproportionately held by disadvantaged groups.

A new survey released by the National Science Foundation shows that black PhD recipients are carrying the majority of the graduate debt burden – an average of $34,055 versus the $17,138 by white PhD recipients (these figures do not take into account debt from undergraduate education, although that is also disproportionate). 12.6 percent of black PhD recipients owe more than $90,000 by the time they earn their degree; only 5.2 percent of white students do.

What happens to these students after they graduate? They enter a job market which has collapsed for everyone – 34.5 percent of PhD recipients were unemployed upon graduating in 2011, an increase from 28.4 percent in 2006. But not everyone was unemployed equally. The National Science Foundation found that while 31.8 percent of white PhDs had “no definite commitment for employment or postdoctoral study”, this was true for 40.5 percent of black PhDs, 39.6 percent of Asian PhDs, and 39.6 percent of Hispanic PhDs.

As the market tightened after the 2008 economic crash, the hiring gap between minorities and whites widened. The ethnic group most likely to take on massive debt is also the ethnic group least likely to find a job. This is hardly the road to equality that proponents of higher education envisioned.

As I have previously argued, higher education in the United States is no longer a path out of poverty, but a road into it – a fact to which administrators seem oblivious. Speakers at the annual meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools blamed the debt crisis on students not “living cheaply enough“, a baffling admonition to adults struggling to afford rent and health care on less than $20,000 per year, much less cover the entry costs to academia (in some fields, applicants must pay to see job listings).

One could argue that these problems are limited to a small segment of the population. But when a graduate degree is considered mandatory in so many professions that shape society, who can obtain it and how – and at what cost – matters to everyone.

In Washington, one analyst argues, a PhD is a mandatory stepping stone to a career in policy. As higher education becomes unaffordable, the category of people willing and able to earn advanced degrees narrows, and the expectations and priorities of this class disproportionately influence the broader population.

We already see this in the normalisation of unpaid labour and in the unemployment crisis. A system that rewards pre-existing personal wealth produces leaders oblivious to those who do not share their fortune. As Paul Krugman remarked, “Influential people in Washington aren’t worried about losing their jobs; by and large they don’t even know anyone who’s unemployed.”

Reaffirming inequalities

“Many of today’s young parents are underemployed and drowning in debt… Will they be able to afford their children’s tuition as rates rise exponentially?”

Educators are aware that this system is unfair, but the solutions they propose – like MOOCs – often serve to reaffirm inequalities. The very premise of the MOOC, academic Aaron Bady notes, is flawed: “‘Access’ wouldn’t even be a problem if we didn’t expect mass higher education to still be available,” he writes. “Americans only have the kind of reverence for education that we have because the 20th century made it possible for the rising middle class to have what had previously been a mark of elite status, a college education.”

The term “status” is critical. MOOCs may spread knowledge and spur insight, but they do not provide the true value of the American university degree – the status it confers upon the recipient. Unlike in the 20th century, an elite degree is not necessarily a sign of achievement. An elite degree shows that the recipient is of a social class willing and able to pay for it.

“Educational success in the United States maps all too precisely upon wealth,” notes one MOOC analyst. “Money is a major factor.” Students of MOOCs will not be able to succeed on merit. Rather, they will face the same disadvantages held by degree-holders from low-ranked schools, who are often shunned in elite professions. For the lower classes, meritocracy in education is dead. Meritocracy has become the ability to owe and borrow money. Meritocracy is access to credit.

The American higher education system will collapse, but it will not be because of MOOCs. It will be because of time. Right now members of the first generation to take out massive student loans are having children of their own. In the next 10 to 15 years, these children will be the right age for college. But will they go?

Many of today’s young parents are underemployed and drowning in debt. They are working in jobs that have no relation to their degrees. They will be paying off their college loans well into old age. Will they be able to afford their children’s tuition as rates rise exponentially? Will they advise their children to take out loans and live like they did?

Today’s young adults know all too well the value of a college degree. The question is whether they will want their children to pay the same price.

Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis.