Using education to entrench privilege

Suppose you are in charge of a community college and there turns out to be a huge demand for math and English classes so that students are being repeatedly turned away because they are full. You might think that it is a good thing that people are seeking more education and that the solution is to open up more classes to meet that demand by (say) hiring more math and English teachers.

The governing board of Santa Monica College in California has a better idea. They decided to jack up the prices for just these courses to $200 per unit, compared to the $46 per unit for other courses. Thus they drove down demand and got more money at the same time. It is, as they say in the business world, a win-win situation. Except of course for poorer students who are put under additional hardship but they don’t count in this brave new market-driven world. NPR had an item this morning on this story because there have been strong protests and questions about whether it is even legal for community colleges to have such a two-tiered pricing system.

This move is part of an increasing trend in which the US educational system, rather than being a mechanism for increasing social mobility, is fast becoming one which entrenches privilege.

In theory, education is the great equalizer. A country in which anyone has access to a good, free education is one that enables class mobility by allowing people to aspire to great things. The US used to have a system that provided access to higher education to almost everyone. It was also, unlike in many countries, a forgiving system in that people could make bad decisions early in life and even drop out of school altogether and yet come back later to obtain qualifications that would enable them to move ahead. Perhaps nothing exemplified this more than the GI Bill. The military often serves as a source of employment for those with few other options and attracts a lot of people from the lower socio-economic strata. Upon completing their service, they could then barter that experience to gain access to higher education

But that period of expanded social mobility seems to be past. The US system seems to be rapidly transitioning to one that seeks to entrench, reproduce, and even increase privilege. Thomas Edsall has an article in which he provides evidence for the following set of propositions.

Instead of serving as a springboard to social mobility as it did for the first decades after World War II, college education today is reinforcing class stratification.

“The education system is an increasingly powerful mechanism for the intergenerational reproduction of privilege.”

Post-secondary education is not, in fact, functioning to dissolve long-standing class hierarchies.

At the same time, colleges, both public and private, have shifted their own spending priorities, modestly increasing the investment in students from families in the lowest income quintile, while sharply boosting their investment in education of students from the top income quintile.

There is a substantial body of evidence that the system is failing to reward students with high test scores who come from low-income families.

The “income achievement gap” – differences in standard test scores and grade point averages – between children from families in the top 10 percent of the income distribution and those from families in the bottom ten percent has been growing.

The data show that a disproportionately large percentage of young adults from working-class families who, according to their test scores and grade point averages, are equipped to earn a B.A., are either not going to college, or failing to finish — relegating them to a life of stagnant or declining wages.

In some ways, what we are seeing here, like in the case of unpaid internships, is another manifestation of how the oligarchy, whose rapacious appetite has created the wide wealth and income divergence prevalent in the US, is now seeking to have their privileges even more deeply entrenched.

Edsall’s article is disturbing for anyone concerned about the widening class divisions but is well worth reading.


  1. unbound says

    In the process of looking for colleges for my oldest, I was floored at how bad the situation has become here in Virginia too. The non-private universities seem to be run solely as businesses to get as much profit as possible. It is very difficult to get to the state universities as a freshman…unless you are out of state, in which case it is a lot easier to get in.

    How this now works for most Virginia residents is that you are expected to go to a local community college for the first 2 years (which isn’t actually much cheaper than the state universities anymore), then go to the state university (they will guarantee acceptance if certain criteria is met). So the state universities get to make extra profit off of the out of state students, and, based on the knowledge that X% will drop out by Junior year, they’ll start pulling in the less profitable resident students.

    This is certainly unethical behavior by the state universities but has become accepted, so nobody objects anymore. Forget serving Virginia, they now serve the true US god…money.

  2. slc1 says

    This is just another manifestation of a problem that has been percolating for a long time, namely the escalation of tuition and fees at public colleges and universities. This is in response to state legislatures reducing support for these institutions. After all, the money has to come from somewhere.

    When I was a freshman at Berkeley a million years ago, there was a flat fee of $50/semester (the same fee was charged at other branches, such as UCLA). Those days are long gone. In fact, it’s becoming harder cost wise to distinguish between private colleges like Harvard or Stanford and public colleges like UC Berkeley or UVA. In fact, here in Virginia, there is a scandal involving students from Virginia high schools being denied admission to UVA and VPU in favor of out of state students who pay a higher tuition and are thus more profitable to the university system.

  3. slc1 says

    I made a similar comment at #3 below relative to the situation in Virginia before Mr. unbound posted.

    In addition to the Virginia issues we have raised, there is also a bias against high school students from Northern Virginia, even graduates of Thomas Jefferson High School, being admitted to UVA and VPU based on a quota system. Students from Northern Virginia are, apparently, expected to attend George Mason if they are admitted to Virginia 4 year colleges at all.

  4. mnb0 says

    “The US educational system is fast becoming one which entrenches privilege.”
    It’s not only unfair, it’s also stupid. All research indicates that nations fair better if their populations are better educated. Spectacular examples are South-Korea, Singapore and Taiwan.

  5. says

    Can you provide a cite for that? I’d really appreciate it, especially if it could be useful in the upcoming VA Senate and gubernatorial campaigns.

  6. slc1 says

    There were articles in the Washington Post several months ago on both the issue of bias against Northern Virgina and the rejection of the applications of Virginia in-state residents in favor of out of state students at VPU and UVA.

  7. iknklast says

    I teach at a community college in the Midwest; we don’t do the two-tiered pricing system, but actually do hire adjuncts to teach the courses. One problem? The adjuncts don’t necessarily have to be trained in the subject, so you wonder if the students who get those instructors are getting as good an education.

    One thing I have noticed, though, is that education is increasingly driven to the business model. This leads not only to the ridiculous two-tiered pricing system, but also to a system of grade inflation and counting heads that leads to a reduction in the quality of the education so that students will be “happy” and continue paying money to the college. Also, classes that might be very useful will get cancelled because you’re one or two students short of the number that is considered “full” – i.e., that will pay back your salary. This is wrong, at least in a public school. We should be about educating, not about how many we can move through an education assembly line.

    We need to take education out of the business realm, and put it into the realm of a social good, so it isn’t tied to making money. This doesn’t appear to be possible at this time; in fact, we’re moving the other way. Back to a time when only the rich could go to college. That spells disaster.

  8. slc1 says

    As long as state governments keep cutting education budgets at their state colleges, this trend will continue. As I said previously, somebody has to pay the costs of maintaining an educational institution and if the state governments won’t do it, then those institutions must either retrench or raise their prices.

    The tragedy of this is that, not all that long ago, the higher education system in the US was the envy of the world.

  9. roxchix says

    They aren’t increasing the fees for all available sessions in those subjects. They are charging more for extra sessions in those subjects.

    They are teaching as many of those sessions as they have standard operating (tax) money for, at the same fee for unit costs.

    The administration says that they don’t have the funding to add any more sessions. So, they are adding extra sessions, and charging what it will cost to make the sessions self supporting.

    I haven’t see the voters and politicians in California willing to send more money to the community colleges to compensate for the increasing enrollment, so what is the solution, if not this?

    About 25% of the students in the typical southern California community college math class withdraw before the end of the semester. I wonder if they’ll have higher completion rates in the classes where the students have more of a financial stake in their enrollment?

  10. smrnda says

    It seems that too many formerly “public” colleges and universities are turning into private schools which happen to get some state funding given how the costs have been diverted away from the government and onto the individual student.

    If the argument is that they have to increase costs since there isn’t any government funding, do the people running community colleges have any obligation to work towards making higher education affordable? Isn’t that part of the mission of a community college anyway?

    to Roxchix – I have a friend who teaches remedial composition at a community college. He has told me that the reason for such a high attrition rate is that students have TOO MUCH of a financial stake in their education; you can’t be successful in school while working some 50 – 60 hours a week on the night shift so you can afford tuition and $500 for books. Students don’t drop classes out of laziness but because they don’t have the resources to handle both going to school and paying for it at the same time. The idea that having a greater ‘financial stake’ makes people better students just ignores the idea that if you come from a family with money, there isn’t going to be the same level of stress over how you pay for school.

    Schools should, if at all possible, charge students based on their ability to pay. Poor students are at a huge disadvantage as state funding and financial aid becomes less and less available, and less and less meaningful when it is.

    The key is that public schools should not be self-supporting. They should be supported adequately so that they can be means of providing upward mobility.

  11. 'Tis Himself says

    Before and during World War II, there was serious debate in the U.S. about what caused the Great Depression and what was needed to prevent it from recurring. One thing that all sides of the argument agreed upon was that education was a positive benefit in preventing another Depression. At the end of the war the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly pass the GI Bill. A major part of the Bill was educational assistance for veterans. Essentially people of my father’s age could go to college with the government picking up tuition and fees and even paying a stipend for living expenses. Other federal laws helped non-veterans in a similar way.

    As a result, large numbers of American men (and smaller numbers of women) got degrees. In the 1950s and 1960s the American educated middle class grew in both numbers and per capita wealth. Widespread education was seen as a major cause for this affluence. It’s quite obvious that the ten years or so before and after 1960 was the peak of American prosperity.

    For various reasons, during the late 1960s and afterwards, college education became both denigrated and taken for granted. The denigration was often by people who were college educated themselves. Education became “elitism” and the latent American anti-intellectualism became socially acceptable.

    The present economic crisis is causing everyone, even the wealthy, to become more frugal. Part of this frugality is an outspoken objection to higher taxes, higher costs, higher tuition, more money coming out of pocket. As a result, colleges, both public and private, are feeling a financial pinch (just like the rest of us). It will get worse before it gets better.

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