Geoffrey Cox, president of Alliant International University, has written a thorough and thoughtful review of Suzanne Mettler’s provocative book Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream, challenging many of her assumptions.
On the book jacket, Mettler argues,
America’s higher education system is failing its students. In the space of a generation, we have gone from being the best-educated society in the world to one surpassed by eleven other nations in college graduation rates. Higher education is evolving into a caste system with separate and unequal tiers that take in students from different socio-economic backgrounds and leave them more unequal than when they first enrolled. . . . As politicians capitulate to corporate interests, owners of for-profit colleges benefit, but for far too many students, higher education leaves them with little besides crippling student loan debt.
Mettler says these for-profit universities are primarily responsible for the enormous and growing chasm between educational haves and have-nots, and many other reviewers of her book agree. For example, Gary Rivlin (2014), writing in The New York Times Sunday Book Review column, notes,
For-profit colleges are the true bad guys in this tale. Though their “ardent defender,” the Republican Party, contends that the schools provide “meaningful opportunities for low-income and minority students,” Mettler mounts a persuasive case that . . . [t]hese institutions are generally more skilled at getting rich off those living in the lower economic reaches than they are at preparing them for the job market. She has mined congressional reports, newspaper accounts and academic studies, piling up example after example of recruiters who’ll say practically anything to enroll a student, any student, in their programs, resulting in graduation rates not even close to those of traditional colleges. And how do those who manage to earn a degree fare? In the 2007-8 academic year, the average student working on a bachelor’s degree from a for-profit college found herself in deeper debt ($32,700) than her counterpart attending a private college ($17,700). And good luck settling loans with those low-paying jobs so many graduates find themselves working, despite the dreams that the school’s marketers put in their heads. Alumni of the for-profit colleges account for nearly half of all student-loan defaults, according to Mettler, even as they make up one in 10 students pursuing a postsecondary education. (para. 3)
President Cox finds these arguments somewhat glib, and he wonders whether the U. S. higher education system causes societal disparities or simply reflects them. He makes the obvious case that enhancing educational access will require additional funding, and this money will have to come from somewhere.
We must also recognize that higher education is a capital-intensive enterprise, and if we take seriously the challenge of increasing access, it will require substantial new investment. This could come from redistributing some of the public largesse bestowed on the elites or by finding more resources in strapped state budgets, but neither of these seems likely. The only other alternative is private capital. We need a system that holds for-profit education fully accountable but also treats it as a necessary, full partner in the effort to expand capacity and opportunity. Only then will it cease being primarily the route for those disenfranchised by other segments of the higher education system. (penultimate para.)
Are most of the thousand or so for-profit colleges that have been created in recent years simply exploiting disadvantaged, naïve, and unsophisticated students and taking advantage of generous and largely unregulated federal loan programs, or do many for-profit colleges offer a viable and meaningful shot at a good education and a rewarding career for over a million students who would not otherwise have these opportunities?
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