Zakaria Wrings His Hands over a “Crisis” in Higher Ed

Fareed Zakaria, in his new Time magazine column, “The Thin-Envelope Crisis,”  does some hand-wringing over the supposed complicity of our colleges and universities in the decline of economic mobility in our country. He writes, “The institutions that have been the best at opening access in the U.S. have been its colleges and universities. If they are not working to reward merit, America will lose the dynamism that has long made it so distinctive.”

What got Zakaria going was the new book Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality by Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton. Much like another recent book purporting to reveal deep things about higher education, Becoming Right (which I reviewed here), this book draws some far-fetched conclusions from a tiny bit of research, in this instance, interviews with most of the women living on one floor of one dorm at one major Midwestern state university.  In brief, the authors say that some of the bright, low-income students who try to take college seriously don’t do well because of the school is far more interested in “the party pathway” where most of the students from more affluent families find themselves.

Therefore, America is said to be losing social mobility because universities like the one studied in Paying for the Party aren’t doing enough to help smart students from lower-income families.  Furthermore, Zakaria makes much of the fact that few of those students attend our “best colleges” because those schools would rather admit legacies and athletes.

As to the first complaint, if students (rich or poor) avoid the party scene and stick to their studies, nothing will keep them from learning and graduating. College officials certainly ought to do what they can to tone down the party atmosphere, but students who can’t discipline themselves to concentrate on their work can go to other schools. High-school guidance counselors often encourage students to apply to the more “prestigious” big-name colleges when in fact they’d be better off at smaller, non-prestigious institutions where the emphasis is more on academics and less on fun.

As to Zakaria’s point that those prestigious schools don’t enroll many students from low-income families, he’s correct – but there is no reason to think that those schools deliver better education than do others. Often it’s the other way around, since undergraduates there are taught largely by teaching assistants, stressed-out adjunct faculty, and professors who are far more interested in their research activities. The sharp and eager students who want upward mobility can find other schools (and at far lower cost) that will do more to help them advance.

But we shouldn’t let higher ed off the hook entirely. It is indirectly responsible for one phenomenon that does hinder economic advancement: credential inflation. The higher education establishment has been happy to go along with the “college is for everybody” movement we have had since the 1970s. One result of that has been the proliferation of college degree requirements. Entry-level jobs in many fields that can lead to good careers are now closed off to anyone who hasn’t earned a degree.  People who can’t get a degree are thus confined to a shrinking corner of the labor market where opportunities for advancement are poor.

Yes, it’s too bad that many big schools are dominated by the party scene, and it’s also too bad that some excellent students are kept out of schools of their choice because of preferential admission policies. But neither of those has anything to do with hindering economic mobility. 

George Leef

George Leef is Director of Research for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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