By Elise Schoening
An undergraduate degree no longer guarantees students will find financial security and a stable job after graduation. More Americans than ever before are enrolling in colleges and universities today. While a growing number of these students will not complete their undergraduate studies, those who do are often left with crippling student loans and may leave college unprepared for the competitive job market.
In a lecture to students on Thursday, April 23, Suzanne Mettler pointed out the flaws of the higher education system in America, particularly how it increases stratification between the socio-economic classes in our nation.
“It takes people in from many levels in the socio-economic spectrum and then turns them out even more unequal than they were when they came in,” said Mettler, a professor of government and public policy at Cornell University. Her lecture at the College was based on her most recent book, “Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream.”
Mettler identified three different sectors of higher education in America: public, private non-profit and private for-profit. She explained that the sector and institution in which a student enrolls greatly impacts their future success. Specifically, Mettler believes the for-profit sector of higher education currently reinforces and widens inequality within the United States.
While colleges and universities of all sectors could serve to improve their graduation rates, Mettler believes that public institutions are still “the best deal in town.” Among the three sectors, public colleges and universities typically have the highest graduation rates, as well as lower tuition costs and student debt.
“Most students, within a few years, are making their loan payments, and it ends up having been a really good investment for them,” Mettler said.
This, however, is not the case for students who attend for-profit schools, such as the University of Phoenix and DeVry University. According to Mettler, these institutions enroll about 10 percent of college students today. Yet, the graduation rate at for-profit institutions is a staggering 22 percent of its enrolled student body.
Most students at these universities take out student loans and remain in debt for far longer than their peers in the non-private and public sectors of higher education. In addition, the graduates of for-profit institutions often find themselves at unskilled jobs and are unable to put their degrees to work, Mettler said. This prevents students from disadvantaged background from achieving more and reinforces social stratification.
Many blame this social inequality on colleges and universities, which have continuously raised tuition rates over the past few decades. Yet, Mettler cautioned that the issue is much more complex than it may seem. She believes the issue of higher education is rooted in public policy, particularly the failure of lawmakers to update earlier policies intended to offer financial relief to students and public universities.
As the cost of attending college continues to rise, Pell Grants from the government have unfortunately not been adjusted accordingly. During the 1970s, Pell Grants to students covered about 80 percent of tuition and fees. According to Mettler, they only cover about 30 percent of these costs today. The failure of lawmakers to update these grants and policies means they are not helping students to the extent intended, according to Mettler.
“It’s just like having a house,” she said. “You learn that you need to maintain things, and if you don’t, deferred maintenance causes all kinds of problems.”
Mettler recognizes that one reason that many of the higher education policies remain outdated and ineffective is partisan polarization. The growing party divide in Congress means simple tasks, such as reauthorizing financial aid to public institutions, are nearly impossible for Democrats and Republicans to agree on.
Funding, however, is not an issue for most for-profit institutions. According to Mettler, these institutions are in fact permitted by law to receive up to 90 percent of their revenues from the federal government.
Members of Congress who support offering federal funding to these institutions claim that for-profit universities value diversity and provide more opportunities for low-income students. For-profit schools, which are comprised of largely less-advantaged students, say they accommodate students by increasing the convenience of learning through online courses.
Mettler questions the validity of these claims. She attributes the low graduation rates of for-profit institutions in part to their lacking structure.
“It’s precisely the students who come to college from less- advantaged backgrounds who particularly need and benefit from the smaller interaction in a classroom with actual faculty members and a small group of students,” Mettler said. “That is a recipe for graduation.”
It is hard to argue that for-profit universities are increasing opportunities for students when their graduation rates are so low. In addition, roughly 47 percent of student loan defaults come from the for-profit sector. These students are actually left worse off than they were going into college, explained Mettler.
As such, the American dream is increasingly out of reach for many students today, particularly for individuals from low-income backgrounds. The current system allows for great funding of for-profit institutions that actively recruit disadvantaged students — however, they typically hurt rather than help these students.
Mettler believes we need to prioritize higher education again and allocate more funds to students and public institutions. Until public policies are regulated effectively, higher education is going to remain a problem that exacerbates socio-economic issues and stratification in the United States.