Talking of higher education and athletics, I want to recommend to people that they read Leveling the Playing Field. It’s is a terrific book, and a wonderful model of how to do applied normative philosophy. It pursues hard and interesting normative questions in the context of detailed and careful empirical analysis of the situation in higher education. The philosophy guides, but does not get in the way of, the empirical exploration; it is also obvious that the authors are steeped in the empirical evidence and institutional detail of the area they are investigating. In the areas where I know the empirical literature in detail they consistently introduced me to new, and more up-to-date findings than I had to hand.
The authors take it as read that ‘educational opportunities should be enhanced for those who have traditionally been shortchanged’, and that ‘individuals should be neither helped nor hindered in their efforts at educational advancement by factors irrelevant to the legitimate goals of the educational institutions’. They elaborate the ways in which the already-advantaged gain additional advantages as they pass through the educational system, and then look at the consequences of this for who goes to college and who goes to which college.
Reform is needed to rectify the unfairnesses they identify, and Fullinwider and Lichtenberg defend affirmative action as legitimate but insufficient. They find that standardized tests have a legitimate role in admissions decisions, but argue that the central reforms should focus on closing the achievement gap between low income and higher income students. They argue that highly selective institutions should foreswear legacy admissions and preferences for athletes (which they show to have a huge impact on admissions prospects).
The authors take widening access to higher education as a central goal, and they think we should get a better match than we currently do between merit broadly understood as it must be and admissions. In defending wider access they also assume that a very large proportion of any cohort should attend college. But why does it matter so much that we try to insulate opportunities to participate in HE (at all levels) from the influence of social origins? After all, we accept, however reluctantly, that access to other goods will be so influenced (for example, access to networks, access to gourmet food, access to foreign vacations, etc).
One reason we might give has to do with economic efficiency; a great deal of productive capacity is wasted by the failure to develop it. This is a public good argument: as a society we are better off (economically) if we develop more the productive capacity of our citizens and higher education is an important means to do that. I am skeptical of this argument. The United States has a great deal of productive capacity, and it is overused: most people spend more time working than they should, and less time with their families and friends than they should. We have exceeded the point at which productive growth is a central public policy imperative, and the policy focus on growth and consumption actually results in people living less rewarding lives than they could. Excessive growth (understood as grwoth of production rather than of productivity) is, in fact, a public bad, not a public good. On top of this fact, most workers have jobs which demand less education than they actually have: much higher education is wasted in economic terms. Finally, the productive capacity argument may not support trying to insulate the prospects for HE against the influence of social class background, because the costs of doing so may well exceed the benefits of the additional productive capacity gained.
I think the more urgent reason for widening access and insulating it from social class background has to do with the fact that higher education is not, really, a public good, but a private good subsidized by the public, most of the return to which goes to the person who gets the education. According to the Census Bureau, over an adult’s working life, high school graduates earn an average of $1.2 million; associate’s degree holders earn about $1.6 million; and bachelor’s degree holders earn about $2.1 million. HE also, not coincidentally, influences access to interesting occupations: some are now structured so as to require a four year degree (or a further degree for which a four year degree is a prerequisite). Up to a certain limit higher incomes influence the level of happiness a person can expect; and higher and status and more interesting occupations yield better health states and greater longevity.
Now, we should be a little bit cautious in elaborating the benefits of a higher education. Some of the apparent return to higher education is in fact a return to the kinds of people who get a higher education; some of them would have done as well, or almost as well, without it, because they have, independently of the higher education they receive, saleable attributes. And there is some evidence that the return to HE is falling, at least in some countries, as uptake increases. But many high income and high status occupations simply require a college degree, so at least the benefits attached to those are conditional on succeeding in HE. It is clear that what we are doing in universities is providing people with access to interesting jobs and the higher salaries, increased autonomy, and additional health and longevity that go with them in our society. It seems a bit rich to use public money to provide those who are already more advantaged by birth with access to even greater advantages.
As with any observation about a positional good like education, two policy trajectories are available to the egalitarian (or, as Lichtenberg and Fullinwider style themselves, the egalitarian of opportunity). The first is to equalize access to the good in question and thereby, indirectly, to equalize opportunity for the good to which it provides access. The other is to break the link between the good in question and the good for which it is positional. A carefully crafter tax-benefit system could reduce the extent to which college education provided access to lifetime improvements in one’s earning potential, by, for example, making net wage rates more equal. The Graduate Tax that some have proposed in the UK weakens the link (slightly) by reducing the effective public subsidy for higher education, and shifting the cost of that subsidy to graduates themselves, hence lowering the effective return to HE. (For more comments on the Graduate Tax see my paper on Top Up Fees). Fullinwider and Lichtenberg opt for the first strategy. I assume that this is largely because the second seems less than promising in our political environment, whereas almost everyone pays some lip service to the desirability of widening access. Another reason, though, for preferring the first strategy in the particular case of HE is that, as well as being instrumentally valuable for access to interesting and well paid jobs, some higher education is itself intrinsically valuable (a great deal of what is taught in science, humanities, and social science departments for example). It is better to widen access and simultaneously introduce more people to the good of HE that they’ll enjoy, than to level down, as it were.
What prospects do their reforms have for widening access in the way that they intend? In fact most of their reform agenda is modest: Maintain Affirmative Action; implore selective colleges to foreswear legacy admissions and reduce athletic preferences; and increase tuition subsidies and the availability of loans and grants. Most important, they rightly demand measures to reduce the achievement gap between lower and higher income school students.
Although I agree with most of them I found the reforms proposed a bit disappointing. It is true that closing the achievement gap is, in fact, an incredibly radical goal; one the achievement of which would, in my view, require a complete restructuring of the whole economy and society in a firmly egalitarian direction. But they do not emphasize this fact, and I can understand why: they seek to influence, and not just berate, policymakers. I see a good case for modesty, because in a world in which the wealthy seem to have taken control of everything there’s not much we can achieve. And in some ways my own stance on university admissions is even more modest than theirs: I’m not sure that we should do anything much about them at all.
Fullinwider and Lichtenberg consistently and rightly emphasize that the reason there is so little uptake of higher education by children from low income and working class background is not because colleges discriminate against them, but because there is a catastrophic undersupply of children from low income backgrounds who are well prepared for college at age 17. There is a large gap in academic achievement, however that is measured or understood which tracks social class.
How might we increase the supply of adequately prepared students from low-income backgrounds? One suggestion might be that we reverse the current policy of making public spending on k-12 education directly proportional to how well off the students are, and make it inversely proportional: in other words spend about twice as much on lower income than on higher income school children rather than the other way round. I suspect that the gradual and uneven movement toward this end will continue, driven partly by the provisions of No Child Left Behind. But would this make much difference to uptake of HE? The UK already employs basically this funding arrangement, and it experiences almost exactly the same problem with HE uptake as the US, and much the same achievement gap. The countries which have a slightly less stark achievement gap are those which have much lower levels of inequality and of child poverty than the US and the UK; but, as we know, reducing inequality and child poverty is not seriously on anyone’s agenda in the US. Personally, I’m not very optimistic about school-located attempts to close the achievement gap, nor very optimistic that other effective strategies are on the horizon.
But one thing might be done. The current funding arrangements for higher education are extremely opaque. Basically, the more advantaged your background the higher the public subsidy you enjoy for higher education; and only the relatively advantaged get any subsidy at all (because only they use HE). It is possible that re-configuring and making more transparent the funding arrangements would have an impact on what goes on in schools. If ever parent and every teacher of a low-income child knew that she would get free tuition and a generous maintenance allowance for attending any college to which she could gain admission on a means-blind basis that would be useful information which might alter the decisions children, their teachers, and their parents, make in middle and high school. If we simultaneously removed some of the subsidies which children from advantaged backgrounds enjoy that would help pay for it. Of course, this is not much more likely than that the government will try to tackle child poverty.