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.

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