Navigating the Crisis in Higher Education

By Manfred Werner – Tsui (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Unemployment, student loan debt, and protest are colliding with rising education costs, endowment building, branding wars, and labor outsourcing. At this tumultuous moment in higher education, this course asks students to reflect on the fate of liberal arts education through a focused analysis of its past and present. Specifically, how do economic pressures and technological innovations impact the sustainability of liberal arts values such as social justice, serving the public good, and cultivating a “life of the mind”?  Students will debate and synthesize arguments about the value and sustainability of liberal arts education by viewing higher education from the perspective of private corporations, governments, college administrators, faculty, parents, and students. In so doing, students will learn to situate their personal experiences within broader institutional, historical, economic and political contexts. Through reflective essays that incorporate both primary and secondary sources, students will develop critical thinking skills, authorial voice, and a sense of ownership over their own education.

The Meritocratic Myth

Meritocracy is a constructed ideal so heavily embedded into the infrastructure of America that people and institutions alike use it as a means by which to maintain standing hierarchies. The power to do so stems from the implication of meritocracy that we occupy a completely just space where opportunities are provided equally and equitably, such that any failure to succeed then comes back on the self for blame. This is problematic because it has been empirically proven that institutionalized racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. exist. And that these isms ban certain people from occupying spaces, pursuing opportunities, and mobilizing themselves. The realm of higher education is not immune to this.

Institutions of higher education to some extent reinforce these same ideals. Most institutions require students to have high GPAs and standardized test scores, regardless of race, geographic location, cultural upbringing, etc. despite the fact that is has been proven that these things impact children’s performance in school. Beyond that, students and their families are expected to be able to spend thousands of dollars on education, and many institutions are very unapologetic about not providing sufficient financial aid. This places the blame on the family for not being economically prosperous enough to provide education for themselves. Once again, despite the fact that many identities are predisposed (through institutional enforcement) to not have economically gainful careers. This even extends to students who cannot particularly afford school but still attend, accepting loads of debt and working to put themselves through. These students are provided no sympathy if their GPAs slip, or if their assignments are late, despite the fact that they may have to work full time jobs on top of already being full time students.

I consider myself one of the lucky students, having gotten into Occidental despite having a GPA and standardized test scores well below the schools average. And to some extent I do dedicate my low grades and scores to my mediocre public school education in a impoverished city. Knowing that these same grades and scores are the reason why I was rejected from many other schools is painful because I know that if I had been admitted, I would have been able to perform up to par. As I do now at Oxy.

However, the filtering out of students like myself from other higher institutions affirms what Mettler argues. Mettler contends that “as colleges grow more stratified, more differentiated in their accessibility to different socioeconomic groups and in what they offer them, they are generating greater inequality in American society” (37). I am completely in accordance with this statement because if institutions of higher education collective continue to reject students who do not have the grades, scores, or money to fit the institutions status quo, then it will only create an even more separated society. Because more often than not, the people with low grades, scores, and not enough money often share identities, and those identities are almost always those of marginalized status. With the way things are going, higher educations institutions will be a vector by which those who are meant to succeed, and those who are not, will be cleanly divided, and with that will come a clear phenotypic identity of the successful and unsuccessful.

Global Crossroads Class Project

Working Title: Degrees of Inequality

The final project is a representation of the argument(s) from this week’s readings. The project needs to be complete by the end of class.

What to Do:

  1. Group into your expertise areas.
  2. Spend 5-10 minutes working out what you need to achieve by the end of class and who will work on what.
  3. Spend 25-30 minutes creating your resources
  4. Spend 10-15 minutes adding the resources to the project. Ideally upload what you have as you go because this will allow more time to make sure everything is organized in the project

It must include 14 resources:

  • A meaningful title and thesis/question
  • 3 assertions
  • 3 text-based data resources
  • 1 image-based data resource
  • 4 images
  • 3 short video clips

GXR project managers:

  • Create project
  • Define the thesis or question based on the readings
  • Communicate the thesis and question to the rest of the class
  • Add the rest of the class to the project
  • Communicate with the groups as they work to revise the thesis as necessary
  • Begin to plan out the order of resources in presentation view
  • Determine whether you can create any meaningful themes or groups that can be used as section headings in the project
  • Help the groups upload their resources as needed; vet their contributions
  • Do the final vetting of the order of resources

Data Viz creators:

  • Given the working title/thesis, decide which statistics are most important to represent. What are common themes or key pieces of data?
  • Choose three stand-alone statistics to include as text.
  • Choose what statistics could be grouped and visualized in a meaningful way.
  • You may choose to recreate a table from the text in a simplified / streamlined form.
  • Use Glify, Excel or another drawing program to create a data visualization.
  • Remember there are dimension requirements for images
  • Add your data resources to Crossroads and include citations

Image creators:

  • Use high quality images of the necessary dimensions
  • Avoid depicting a generic idea about inequality, crisis, or education
  • Focus on images related to the ideas in the text that can be an object of further analysis, raise further questions or probe an idea (e.g., an advertisement from a for profit school, an image of a college graduate who is under or unemployed, an image of a college party, etc.)
  • You may choose to create an info graph of statistics as one of your images.
  • Write out the captions you will include that either a) concretely describe the image or b) juxtapose an idea or critique of the image that could lead to further discussion or debate
  • Add your images to the Crossroads project.
  • Create a thumbnail of the image that allows a viewer to see what it is
  • Add your captions
  • Tag the image with concrete details about the image — not just the meaning it has for you in this class but so that someone else could find it for other purposes

Video creators:

  • Use the video capture on a smartphone to generate short vignettes that re-tell the human stories in the readings. You can recite quotes from interviews or personify a story that was told in the third person. You may also create a character who has experienced the issues raised in the readings.
  • Don’t overdramatize — respect people’s experiences and stories, even if you feel strange enacting them.
  • Upload the clips to Vimeo in order to add them to project
  • Add the videos and include tags and citation if you are quoting from the readings

Why isn’t higher education meritocratic?

“Not just for the rich and white, education is a right,” a chant by young adults rallying against America’s higher education system, is mentioned by Suzanne Mettler in the beginning of Creating Degrees in Equality. Unfortunately, the words spoken by the young activists reflect the true state of education in America. The article continues to highlight different issues facing higher education: debt, the impact that lawmakers and politicians have made, the importance of a college degree, etc. But the most damaging issue surrounding higher education that Mettler discusses is the drastic inequality in college graduates. Mettler finds that when we look to see who exactly graduates college today, “we find that the ranks of college graduates reinforce income equality” (23). In fact, she cites that “degree attainment among upper income households so dramatically outpaces that of low and middle income people that the percentage who obtain diplomas among the top income quartile is greater than that of the other three quartiles combined” (24). Mettler states that the problem does not necessarily come from the lack of students in lower income families being admitted into the institutions, but most commonly that they start college and do reach graduation. This is not because any lack of interest or skills, it is because “young people from higher socioeconomic backgrounds are typically better positioned to excel” (25). (She mentions advantages such as attending better primary and secondary schools, extracurriculars, getting higher standardized test scores). Furthermore, she cites that “even among individuals with the same academic credentials, those from less advantaged families are less likely to gain college degrees” (26). The most terrifying of Mettler’s quotes (backed up by a study): “The United States quality of [children] life was more determined by parents’ level of education than in any of the other countries investigated…The vast majority of children fortunate enough to be born to highly educated parents acquired high levels of education, and conversely, the children of those with little education were penalized by receiving little education.” (27-28).

So why is this the case? Why is higher education just another tool used to benefit the rich? Why is it just another example of the falseness of the so-called “American Dream?” The greatest obstacle facing those students who come from the bottom half of the income spectrum is “insufficient financial support” (28). Mettler cites a study by a group of economists that finds rising tuition in colleges to blame. The rising costs force students to work longer hours to afford their education, which makes it very hard for them to take enough credits at school to graduate (27). Additionally, the inequality partly arises from the fact that not all college degrees are equal. In the elite private schools that those from high income backgrounds increasingly attend (because of mechanisms used by colleges such as the SAT, the resources these institutions use to attract affluent students, etc), an overwhelming 70 percent of students come from the top income quartile. And degrees from elite institutions, Mettler says, “yield the most impressive returns for their graduates: their earnings are 45 percent higher than those who receive college degrees elsewhere, and they produce a disproportionate share of the nation’s top corporate and government leaders” (31). The cycle remains continuous. In order for education to be the tool of social mobility that it was meant to be and that it should be, students not only need to be admitted into schools based on merits and not money, but they need to also be able to stay in school and get the degree that they work so hard for. In a perfect world where the American Dream is actually attainable, tuitions need to decrease, schools (especially the elite, private schools) need to admit more students from the lower half of the income spectrum, and student aid needs to be offered much more, and to those who need it.

Meritocracy in Education

To base higher education in meritocracy, there must be a systematic change to the way college is paid for rather than “top-down” changes that make colleges and universities themselves more diverse, but does little to fix the problem.  One quote that stuck out to me in the reading was “In fact, ample evidence reveals that neither changes in college readiness nor shifts in the demographic characteristics of college students go very far to explain the unimpressive college graduation rates”.  The author then discusses a study that found that rising costs in public education bears most of the blame for the trend.  Students need to work more in order to finance their education.  Many cannot graduate in the normal amount of time, and other give up their path to a degree.

Another problem that I found quite disturbing was the growth of for-profit schools in the United States.  They enrolled 1.6 percent of students in 1993 and 9.6 percent of students by 2010.  The number of for-profit schools has increased by a factor of three since 1990.  I believe this is a problem because a group like the Apollo Group is ultimately driven by profit, not student interest.  This is evident when considering the fact that companies like Apollo invest their profits in recruitment rather than themselves or their operations.  The product turns out to be what I liken to a propaganda machine rather than an institution that cares about their students.

One Man’s Merit is Another Man’s Privilege.

Meritocracy has long been held as the most fair and unbiased method for determining relative achievement. Even in a society that might otherwise express contempt toward cut-throat competition, a contest of merit is still considered acceptable—if there are to be winners and loser, better it be determined by individual performance and skill than by external biases. Unfortunately, while praise of meritocracy is nearly universal—few would be so bold as to argue against it directly—our standard for determining “merit” seems, at times, to be filled with strategic ambiguity. When inequality is perceived in a given system or environment, a lack of meritocracy is often one of main criticisms leveled; a clear definition of merit, however, is often lacking. While there can be no doubt that meritocracy is real and important, it is not especially useful for evaluation unless we can answer a key question: how do we know when it isn’t present?

This may seem like a silly question, but it carries significant weight. If one were to look at samples of people who succeeded and of those who failed, how would it be determined whether the selection were meritocratic? This dilemma is especially important to the current debate surrounding college attendance and undergraduate performance. It is often claimed, with some convincing statistical support, that attaining a bachelors degree depends more on the socioeconomic status of a student’s family than on said student’s academic ability. As a result, higher education is often claimed to be an institution lacking in meritocracy. The actual truth of this claim is, for the sake of the current discussion, largely irrelevant . Instead, it is useful to focus on how we would determine its truth. What do we look for? On one hand, it could be argued that the mere presence of a strong correlation between wealth and graduation is enough to rule out meritocracy. The wealth of your family cannot possibly be an indicator your personal abilities, so the argument goes, therefore a true meritocracy would not result in any connection between money and success. However, this seems like a weak approach, as it inappropriately rules out the possibility of of wealth being directly associated with increased merit. It might very well be the case that having more money allows one to acquire greater skill and amass more talents—in this sense, it could be argued that the acquisition of merit is itself not a meritocracy.

Conversely, one could approach the issue from the opposite end; the mere fact that a particular group succeeds implies that they had the greatest merit. This method effectively establishes a “definition” of merit by working backwards from the outcome—merit simply means that a person had what it takes to succeed, regardless of what that entails. By doing this we abandon all pretense of striving for some greater sense of fairness, instead settling for a laissez faire notion of what it means to be worthy of attainment. In the context of higher education, this means that being wealthy is merit by definition, because it is a characteristic shared by those most likely to graduate from college. On the whole, this approach to meritocracy seems patently absurd, as the mere fact that a trait is associated with success should not be sufficient to declare it an example of merit; through such an argument, one could easily demonstrate that white skin is meritorious, conveniently ignoring that such disproportionate success results from significant racism.

If nothing else, we can derive from the previous discussion one key revelation: meritocracy is subjective. You can approach the evaluation of merit from multiple perspectives, and no one approach is objectively “correct.” What one considers to be meritocratic will depend largely on what one thinks is fair—it becomes a matter of what should be valued rather than what is valued. When it comes to college, some might have no problem with the notion that wealth determines success; maybe higher education is best left to those living at highest echelons of society. Of course, many people will find this proposition abhorrent, and instead advocate for equal performance in higher education regardless of socioeconomic status, even if this means conveniently ignoring the possibility that academic talent results from a more privileged background.

Why isn’t higher education meritocratic?

After doing the readings, I would say education isn’t meritocratic mainly because of money and lack thereof. Metler makes the important point that “college degrees are more linked than ever to opportunities” yet these opportunities are being given almost exclusively to those who can afford them (48). Higher education is increasingly being seen as a necessity as opposed to an option and that goes hand in hand with the depleted idea of the American dream that eventually one will advance if they work hard enough. As tuition continues to increase steadily, the opportunity for low-income students to attend institutes of higher education decreases, even though they are just as qualified. Gone are the days where one can apply to college with a GPA that is considered good and get in. To get into college, one’s GPA has to be stellar, then they have to have extra-curriculars both athletic and academic, then letters of recommendations, AP scores and essays and multiple sets of SAT scores and that’s not even taking into consideration financial need. Being a ‘good’ student is no longer your ticket to higher education or merit only gets you so far. In Armstrong’s article, she argues “college experience is shaped by the fit between individual characteristics (resources associated with class background..)” (8). What stood out to me there is the link between class background and one’s college experience. What she continues to explore is the idea that those who come from higher class backgrounds and have more money are more able to focus on their studies as opposed to those from low-income backgrounds who often need to work extra jobs or supplement their studies with work in order to afford their education. In other words, it’s nearly impossible for colleges to measure people based off of merit, though they try, because of the outside situations people are in that affect their college experience. Higher education can’t be based on meritocracy until everyone has an equal opportunity to attend college and until then, people should be aware of their privilege and the inequality around them.

Although colleges have an illusion of being the direct pathway towards financial stability, reality has proven this belief incorrect. Colleges are not meritocratic because the idea of meritocracy does not exist. Socioeconomic status challenges meritocracy because people are exposed to different environments that are contingent upon their wealth. When students enter college, the “young people from higher socioeconomic backgrounds are typically better positioned to excel in the perquisites for college admission and success….They are more likely to attend better primary and secondary schools…” (Mettler, 25). Although there are a wide range of students (in terms of wealth) attending college, everybody starts off at a different foot and they face different pressures. Because students coming from wealthy families have been raised in environments that value education of the highest caliber, those who grow up in high income families today, going to college is a routine part of life-like getting childhood immunizations” (Mettler, 23). They have grown up in a resource filled environment that boosters learning. As a result, they do not have to worry about the monetary risks that most students have to face. Especially after the Great Recession, most students “have 50,000 in student loan debt and my B.A. is useless [because of] rising tuition and student indebtness” (Mettler, 23). For most students, college is a degree of inequality. It is a place that favors the rich and continues to oppress the poor. Education has become a system that mirrors the inequalities of society. It is not the American Dream that we all thought college was cut out to be.

Why isn’t higher education meritocratic?

It is not meritocratic primarily because of financial reasons. In the United States our society is run by money rather than merit, and it is hard for those without it to become one who has it because of the high prices of college. Even schools like Occidental, who promote social progression, need to recruit as many students that can pay as it can for the sake of being able to run the college. Commonly we wonder why schools don’t accept students based on merit alone, and even the ones that seem to want to  do not. It is because colleges are not cheap to run, public schools have to rely less on the government for funding, and private schools don’t even have enough to give their professors livable wages. The prices of education keep rising and rising and hence schools must look for wealthier students that can afford to pay for their education. Of course this only increases the problem of inequity in higher education, but the point is, colleges are simply not able to admit everybody who deserves to go to their schools. From personal experience I have seen how much money can talk. A student from my former high school came from a family that has millions and millions of dollars, he was a significantly worse student than I, but he went to an Ivy league school. Of course on the other hand, I have to receive a fair amount of financial aid from Oxy, but the school still chose to accept me. While money does speak louder than grades, they are not worthless, and in some cases students are accepted based on merit over money. Of course not every student at Oxy could have the same amount of aid or else the school could not afford to continue to run. So overall schools are generally based on money because schools simply cannot afford any other way, however some students are accepted based on merit which may lead to a very slow progression. Of course not at a significant rate, but it is still important to acknowledge that schools are not 100% money driven.

Why isn’t higher education meritocratic?

Education is not meritocratic and it doesn’t look as though this will change any time soon. The rising costs of education alone as well as the resources available to different students only reinforce income inequality and devalue the educational system that is meant to be an equalizer. Many people attend college because they believe that it will get them job that has a higher salary and is more satisfying than if they hadn’t gone to college. This is the case for some, however, the fact that education is not meritocratic means that the people that reap the most benefits from their college education are not just those that worked the hardest but those that had the most resources available to them. A study in Creating Degrees of Inequality was tested to see the disparities between low and high-income households. Mettler explains. “If we look more closely to see who completes college today, we find that the ranks of college graduates reinforce income inequality.” (23) In fact this study found that 71& who grew up in high-income families complete their bachelor’s degree in early adulthood while only 10% who grow up in low-income families do. In fact that disparity is so large that “the percentage who obtain diplomas among the top income quartile is greater than that of the other three quartiles combined” (24). These sorts of facts prove that the higher education system does not actually equalize it’s students but creates an almost larger gap between high and low income families. The reading by Armstrong explained how the income of a family was not the only factor but also the resources available to you due to that income. The example of Taylor and Emma who entered the college at about the same place but left with two completely different life paths shows how much of your success relies on more than a college education. In one example Armstrong states, “without highly educated and well-informed parents like Taylor’s, it was hard for Emma to entirely avoid the lure of the robust party pathway at MU” (13). Therefore, a lot of the success of the students also comes from the success of their parents, which once again, reinforces the income inequality already highly present in our society. How can someone that comes from a low-income family with parents that did not attend to college go to college and then gain a better job if higher education is not meritocratic? While many people do believe that higher education is a “great equalizer” these reading show that this is just not the case.

Why isn’t Higher Education Meritocratic?

While reading Armstrong’s article, I felt as if I could really see myself in Emma and or Taylor’s shoes. Their pasts and career objectives were almost identical to mine. Reading about one of the girls struggling and the other one somehow succeeding put things deep into perspective for me, as I know that my background is also similar to others at Oxy. It was hard for me to understand that despite similar upbringings, both girls did not do as well as the other. Thus, it is evident that colleges are not meritocratic because they are not based off of one’s merit but instead based off outside influences, such as money, class, and experiences. I asked myself, how could this happen? Armstrong notes in the first few pages, “In this book we argue that student experiences during college, and class trajectories at exit, are fundamentally shaped by the structure of academics and social life on campus. That is, in different institutional contexts, we might expect the same student to leave with better-or worse-chances for class reproduction and mobility” (3). Clearly, somewhere in this educational system inequality arose that continued to divide and separate students. Due to low-income households, it makes it impossible for some students to have the same opportunities as those students in top financial tier households. This inequality could be solved with a meritocratic form of higher education as more equality and fairness could arise. Meritocratic is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement.” A higher educational system that lacks meritocracy is thus unfair and creates disparity among students, despite coming into college with similar backgrounds and upbringings. In Creating Degrees of Inequality Mettler writes, “As colleges grow more stratified, more differentiated in their accessibility to different socioeconomic groups and in what they offer them, they are generating greater inequality in American society” (37). It is evident that classification leads to increased inequality in colleges today. That is why higher education should gravitate towards meritocracy and not divide and classify students leading to a greater divide in individuals in society.