How Universities Promote the “Coming Apart” of America

Coming Apart.JPGEvery decade or so, Charles Murray writes a blockbuster book captivating America. First came Losing Ground, focusing attention on our dysfunctional system of public assistance, and, along with Richard Herrnstein, The Bell Curve, a controversial but rigorous examination of the role played by cognitive endowments in American life. I suspect his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, will be another mega hit. Based on a quick read, Murray demonstrates the growing gaps between affluent upper-middle-class Americans and their blue-collar, lower-income counterparts. He confines his analysis to whites to avoid all sorts of unrelated side issues, including the tendency to see the growing gap between Americans as primarily a problem of race, ethnicity or bias.

Murray’s thesis is simple: a powerful new class has emerged in America, based on cognitive and educational homogamy–the interbreeding of individuals with like characteristics. Colleges and universities have played a key role–particularly the elite institutions, which attract almost no one outside the top ten percent of the nation’s cognitive talent. (Fifty years ago, only three percent of Americans graduated from college, and the elite institutions tended to attract the well-connected and the economically successful, not necessarily the brightest.) These institutions now function as sorting mechanisms. The exceptionally bright now tend to meet and then marry similarly bright partners. In addition to building a culture vastly different from that of mainstream America, they perpetuate the advantages that high levels of cognitive skills offer. As a result, Murray concludes, “Highly disproportionate numbers of exceptionally able children in the next generation will come from parents in the upper-middle class, and more specifically from parents who are already part of the broad elite.” As the new class pulls away from mainstream America, so does the discouraged underclass–now made up of all ethnicities–giving up on work, family and community.

Evidence by others confirms much of this: what economists call
“intergenerational income mobility” seems to be declining, so the
observations of de Tocqueville and others that Americans of lower
stations in life can in one generation very easily attain wealth and
power seem to be less true than previously. One could say “the American
Dream” is a diminished force in American life, and with that, American
economic exceptionalism is partially imperiled.

We must begin, of course, with primary and secondary education. The
quality of public schools in the relatively down-market areas in which
most blue-collar folks live has declined by almost any measure over the
past half century, while the affluent suburban schools that the upper
middle class attend have probably suffered less. The good quality,
mostly inner-city Catholic schools that many students from blue-collar
families attended have had significant enrollment declines since 1950.
The gap between the affluent and less affluent with respect to
preparation for college, in short, has almost certainly widened.

At the college level, as Murray demonstrates, the gap between the
academic record of entering students at, say, Harvard, the University of
Michigan, and Kansas State University in 1950 was probably noticeable
and real, but much less than it is today. Harvard today can have an
all-valedictorian class if it wishes, but that was not so in 1950.
Kansas State is lucky today, I suspect, if two percent of those enrolled
were at the top of their high school class.

One reason for this is that the top universities have not expanded
enrollments. Harvard, if it did not want to expand in Massachusetts,
could have developed Harvard of the South and Harvard of the West, but
it did not–it no doubt felt that would hurt its prestige. Access has
been a lower priority than maintaining selectivity and top college
rankings. As the demand for higher education rose, more students have
attended schools of lesser distinction–Western Michigan University
instead of the University of Michigan, for example.

Statistical evidence shows the gap within the higher education sector
has grown. Spending per student has grown much more at the elite
private schools than at even respected flagship universities, and many
blue-collar workers attend community colleges where per-student spending
has remained relatively flat over time. In the first US News & World Report
rankings using current methodology in 1988, there were eight public
universities in the top 25 national institutions but now only three.
Excepting the service academies, there are only no public institutions
in the top 40 in the current Forbes rankings. The better
private schools, while using financial aid to ease the burden of
low-income students, nonetheless favor students with good academic
promise, a group excluding many blue-collar kids attending mediocre
public primary and secondary schools.

Moreover, the income advantage associated with college credentials
has grown dramatically. The conventional view is that “in this high tech
age, we need more highly skilled workers requiring a college degree.”
Yet, judging from a look at data on the web site, I suspect
a majority of the recent increase in the number of college-degree
holders in often low-paying jobs (historically held by high school
grads) has come from blue collar-intensive schools like Cleveland State
University, whose enrollments have soared since 1950. Supply has created
its own demand, so even bars can insist on college degrees for
bartenders (we have 107,000 of them).

We now have two tiers of higher education: first, truly elite private
schools (and maybe a dozen or so public flagship universities like the
universities of Michigan, Illinois, Virginia, North Carolina, and
California–several campuses) whose graduates are sought for good
managerial, technical and professional jobs. Second, we have the
non-highly selective schools, mostly public, but also less distinguished
private schools as well as some for profit institutions. The students
going to the first group of schools–10 to 15 percent of the total–far
outdistance the others, career-wise. No longer is a college degree
itself almost automatically a ticket to a privileged life.

Building on Murray’s insights, I would note that endemic
certification inflation largely reflects public policy. Too many kids go
to college because of large government subsidies, watering down
educational quality and giving us too many college graduates for the
good jobs available. Griggs v. Duke Power and some legislative actions have eroded one means,
employment testing, that bright kids from blue-collar families once had
to certify their competency for responsible jobs to potential
employers, because companies are fearful of legal liabilities. And, of
course, our public K-12 schools have become more unequal in their
results because of injudicious public policies, including allowing labor
unions de facto veto power over meaningful reforms like vouchers and
other pro-competitive measures.

To me, however, inequality itself is far from a dirty
word–differences in income, for example, are vital to providing the
incentives that propel prosperity. Yet the evidence that equality of opportunity–not
results–is in decline is disheartening. Murray’s book tells a
compelling, if sometimes, depressing story. Like him, I believe that
that higher education has been more part of the problem, rather than the
solution, in America’s “coming apart.”


  • Richard Vedder

    Richard Vedder is Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus at Ohio University, a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, and a board member of the National Association of Scholars.

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