Rethinking the Rules of the Higher Education Game

Rising tuition isn’t the only obstacle to equitable higher education access.
By Peter Sacks

The familiar conversation about access to higher education is limited to what college costs and whether colleges are giving us our money’s worth. While important, that conversation may be constricting our ability to understand what is really limiting the promise of higher education in America.

Squeeze Play, the recent, widely reported-on survey by Public Agenda and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, illustrates the nature of the current discourse. “Clearly one factor in Americans’ concerns about access to higher education is their perception of the escalating cost of tuition and fees at colleges and universities,” says the report. “Today, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) continue to say that higher education prices are rising at a faster rate compared with other things, up seven percentage points from 2007. Indeed, of those who think college prices are going up faster than other things, 74 percent say that they are going up faster than, or at the same rate as, health care costs.”

Americans are clearly troubled about the rising costs of going to college, which they increasingly view as an economic and social necessity in the United States. Fully six in ten Americans, says the report, believe colleges and universities “operate more like a business, focused more on the bottom line than on the educational experience of students.” Moreover, colleges and universities could “cut the fat” from their operations, reduce tuition prices, and continue to maintain academic quality, according to 54 percent of respondents in the survey.

The questions that the Squeeze Play authors pose in their survey illustrate a disturbing public skepticism about higher education. Unfortunately, with its narrow focus on the all-too-familiar tuition and efficiency story, Squeeze Play and countless reports like it barely scratch the surface of why colleges and universities are not living up to their promise as vital institutions in the American democracy.

Hidden Barriers

Questions about access to higher education are more complicated and more troublesome than questions about what college costs. Although the less obvious barriers to access rarely surface in the public arena, these barriers are at the core of American higher education’s failure to serve the larger public good.

The hidden barriers to access are unpleasant topics for Americans because such topics invariably point to persistent structural inequalities in educational opportunity. Our individualistic culture tends either to dismiss or not to acknowledge truths about social and economic structures that contradict our foundational ideology as the land of limitless opportunity, where any child can succeed with enough hard work and intelligence.

Access to higher education is not determined simply by one’s ability to pay for college. Some children are born on the right side of the class divide, lucky to have parents who themselves have college and university degrees. In the transmission of cultural capital from one generation to the next, such parents orient their children toward higher education, which structures the child’s whole educational experience, from preschool through graduate school.

Class differences among children are thus reproduced generation after generation. But that doesn’t let the higher education establishment off the hook. Were the American educational establishment to operate as a true meritocracy—agnostic to the vast differences in the cultural, economic, and social capital that children from different classes obtain from their families—then we could say that American higher education is serving the democratic enterprise as best it can.

But that is not the case. In fact, colleges and universities operate as handmaidens to the inequality machine, fostering admissions and financial aid practices that systematically reward well-capitalized children and families at the expense of children unlucky enough to be born to the wrong parents. Despite what we may believe about our higher education system’s role as a great equalizer for social and economic mobility in the United States, we have created a highly structured system of colleges and universities that, more often than not, actually perpetuates inequality.

Pursuit of Prestige

As the Squeeze Play report indicates, the public senses that colleges and universities are run like businesses, concerned more with the bottom line than with holding the line on tuition hikes. But public sentiment in this case actually misses the essence of the underlying corporate mentality in higher education.

Nonprofit colleges and universities don’t maximize profits or pay income tax on those profits, but they are very much in the business of maximizing institutional prestige and endowments. Endowment building and maintaining prestige are functions of the higher education marketplace’s determination of college quality. The way this market now works, “quality” is almost fully determined by an institution’s selectivity in admissions. Selectivity, in turn, is closely related to the average SAT scores of first-year students.

The college rankings game, now institutionalized by the market’s reliance on such information sources as U.S. News & World Report, entrenches the dominance of SAT (or ACT) scores as the primary measure of a college’s quality. Instead of measuring what colleges and universities actually do for students, in an educational sense, once they arrive on campus, the current rankings paradigm says that an institution is good because it has admitted students with high SAT scores and turned away those with modest SAT scores.

All selective colleges and universities want certain types of students. These students primarily include the sons and daughters of affluent professionals, students who have attended excellent schools, live in safe and attractive neighborhoods, and—most importantly—score reasonably well on their SATs.

Institutions covet such students not because they actually believe the SAT is the final word on the potential for success in college. Rather, external market forces determine the admissions behavior of individual institutions. Colleges and universities want such students because these students and their SAT scores add prestige to the institution, as measured by the college rankings formulas.

Institutions want these students to such an extent that they’re willing to pay them to enroll. Under the guise of “merit,” colleges and universities have drastically increased the amount of scholarship money they offer high-scoring students. Consider the findings from a study by the Lumina Foundation published in 2003. During the five years between the mid-1990s and the decade’s end, students from families earning $20,000 to $40,000 a year saw their institutional grants rise 15 percent at private colleges and universities. (Similar patterns held for public universities as well.) By contrast, students from families earning $100,000 a year or more were granted a whopping 145 percent increase in institutional, merit-based scholarships during that period. Although lower-income students continued to receive more in total scholarship funds than wealthier students, that difference was rapidly narrowing. In the mid-1990s, the lower-income group received an average of $3,300 more than the affluent students in scholarships. But by decade’s end, despite higher tuition costs, the lower-income students received an average of just $2,100 more than the affluent students in institutional aid.

And it’s not just merit scholarships. The Squeeze Play respondents might not know this, but the most coveted students rarely pay full tuition, the advertised sticker price. What really matters is the net price that students pay after scholarships and tuition discounts.

The interrelated trends of tuition costs, financial aid, and college admissions practices have created an American higher education system that is increasingly hostile to students born to parents who lack the social, cultural, and economic capital that admissions and financial aid systems handsomely reward.

In terms of enrollments at America’s most selective colleges and universities, the class divide in higher education became quite extreme by the end of the twentieth century. In their 2004 paper published by the Century Foundation, Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose found that more than 90 percent of the first-year students enrolled at the most selective 146 colleges and universities in the United States came from families in the top two quartiles of the socioeconomic distribution. Just 9 percent of students at those colleges came from families in the bottom two socioeconomic quartiles. Even as race-based affirmative action policies expanded over the years, class became more of a barrier to those selective colleges than race. In the Century Foundation study, 22 percent of the first-year students at these colleges were underrepresented minorities, but only 3 percent came from low-income families.

A Flawed Paradigm

In a sense, the educational marketplace is working just fine. Students, families, alumni, and donors are getting what they pay for. American society, with its ideological insistence that free markets are best, is getting the higher education system it deserves. But are we getting the education system that is just? Are we getting the education system that we need for the future of the democracy? Such questions are open to debate, but I would argue that the higher education system we’ve created is neither just nor what we need for the future vitality of the American enterprise.

The higher education market is unjust because the admissions and financial aid apparatus is based on the illusion that intelligence, creativity, and achievement can be measured by SAT scores. The evidence of this is overwhelming. For example, one landmark study of the University of California system in the past decade showed conclusively that the SAT I “reasoning” test correlated insignificantly to student performance relative to other indicators, such as high school grades, and that the SAT I was considerably more correlated with family socioeconomic status than with high school grades. That study, in fact, prompted Richard C. Atkinson, then president of UC, to propose abandoning the SAT I altogether.

Unfortunately, our higher education system tends to perpetuate privilege rather than address inequality. The hegemony of the SAT has created an institutional game that reinforces huge disparities in educational opportunity. The vicious cycle is rarely broken.

This state of affairs is troublesome. But beyond whatever moral outrage we might have about the injustices of the current system, the national economic implications are ominous. Indeed, the economic dimensions of this growing inequality may finally help us to break the cycle.

We are fostering an increasingly class-bound educational system in which only a small slice of the population can realistically hope to earn postsecondary degrees. Unless we change course, in the future the number of educational and economic have-nots will multiply. Class divisions will continue to widen between a growing underclass and the magnificently well-capitalized elites at the top. Such widening divisions are a recipe for the creation of an economically based oligarchy—a system in which political, social, and economic power resides with a relatively small group of well-educated, insular elites.

What’s to be done? Colleges and universities can’t change the American class system. But they could do more to make inequality of opportunity less bad instead of much worse.
Institutions should rethink their reliance on admissions tests like the SAT, following the lead of such diverse institutions as the University of Texas, Bates College, Sarah Lawrence College, Oregon State University, and the University of Kansas. They should also promote projects to create better indicators for consumers about college quality than what they get from traditional rankings, such as those published by U.S. News & World Report.

The old paradigm of self-perpetuating “merit” is highly resistant to change, and the many faculty members acculturated to that paradigm are often among those who resist change the most. In order to build colleges and universities for the future, faculty members should take more ownership of undergraduate admissions and become more intimately involved in admissions decisions.

As the standard-bearers for an institution’s academic integrity, faculty members should consider that the system to which they’ve been acculturated is not the only—nor the best—way to run a meritocracy. At the same time, they should be mindful that the system compounds inequality because their institutions allocate opportunities based upon rules of the game that reward people born to the right parents and exclude those who were not so lucky.

Peter Sacks is an author, journalist, and social critic. His recent book, Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education, won the 2009 Frederic W. Ness Award from the Association of American Colleges and Universities. His e-mail address is



In his article "Rethinking the Rules of the Higher Education Game", in the July-August, 2010 issue of Academe, Peter Sacks says that our 'higher education" system is class bound because it depends upon SAT scores for admission and SAT is class bound and therefore "only a small slice of the population can realistically hope to earn postsecondary degrees." Mr. Sacks seems to be confusing so-called "elite" institutions, which base admissions on SAT scores with all of American colleges and universities.  There are many "non-elite" post-secondary institutions, whose admissions are independent of SAT, ACT, etc, at which at student - having adequate tools, not necessarily adequate credentials - can get a fine education and earn a "post secondary degree" which is generally recognized throughout our society. Furthermore, such institutions very often struggle to provide the missing tools as well.

We have real problems, of race, class, and economics, keeping us from fulfilling the American dream but Mr. Sacks is still tilting at windmills.


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