Just over 20 years ago as a new Cambridge University graduate, I got on a plane and left England for the U.S. for the last time. I was leaving family and friends, but one thing I was glad to say goodbye to was a society I perceived to be constrained by class.
America was different, I thought. They celebrate success, confident that anyone can achieve educational goals if you just work hard enough. After 20 years of studying and teaching in American higher education, I realize that this is an illusion.
Access to higher education in the U.S. is loaded against huge segments of society, regardless of academic ability. As the season for college applications across the country begins, it is prudent to take a broader look at the state of equity in access to higher education.
Faculty at institutes of higher education are overwhelmingly white. While 14% of the population are Black and 19% are Hispanic or Latino, only 6% and 5% of faculty are Black or Hispanic/Latino, respectively, and their proportion declines the higher the academic rank.
Certainly, the racial diversity of undergraduates at four-year colleges is much more reflective of society as whole, but there is a gaping socioeconomic gap. Students from families in the top 20% income bracket are over seven times more likely to enroll at highly selective institutions than students in the bottom 20% income bracket.
It is perhaps not surprising that children of ultra-wealthy families are more than twice as likely to get into Ivy League schools compared to others with the same test scores.
And who goes to elite schools matters. Elite schools provide a hugely disproportionate number of political, legal and industrial leaders. A 2020 study shows graduates from these schools get paid disproportionally more relative to their job performance.
These elite schools generate a disproportionate number of faculty at PhD-granting universities as one-in-eight come from just five institutions. These universities generate a disproportionate quantity of research taught at other colleges and universities around the country.
With the recent obliteration of Affirmative Action by the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. took a step back in addressing the inequity of access to higher education at elite schools.
Additional lawsuits are attempting to further remove race as a factor in admission to our military academies.
To be sure, those fighting these lawsuits argue, correctly, that Affirmative Action is discriminatory. They propose that college admissions should be ’fair’ and not based on race or ethnicity. What they are not explicit about is what ‘fair’ actually means.
Access to primary education is not a level playing field and education outcomes that determine entry into higher education are not either. Almost 89% of K-12 education in the U.S. is funded by local and state funding, that ensures that local wealth inequities extend into education.
The result is that schools that educate large populations of students of color receive 13 percent less per student in state and local funding than those that educate the smallest populations of Latino, Black and Native American students.
This gap means that these students have less experienced teachers, less access to education resources and less access to AP classes. The result is an achievement gap for Black and Hispanic students in every grade from K through 12.
While affirmative action is not the panacea to inequities in access to education, it is an important component in leveling the playing field. The possibility that our current Supreme Court will reverse its decision is likely zero.
In the short term, schools need to come up with more imaginative ways of ensuring that applicants with fewer academic advantages but equal potential are admitted. This should include eliminating standardized testing as a criterion for admission (which are biased against students of color), taking a more rounded approach to admissions that includes a student’s past access to educational resources and opportunities, and doing away with legacy favoritism.
In the long term, what is really needed is a fundamental change in the funding of education in the U.S.. It must be more equitable with no child left behind. This will require increased federal funding for school districts where local and state funding falls short. And it’s not sufficient to simply equalize educational spending across districts. Less wealthy districts need more spending per student to provide an adequate education.
Education is a key facilitator of social mobility, and it is telling that in both the UK and USA increases in income and educational inequality over the last 50 years have been accompanied by a decline in social mobility.
It is time to change that trajectory.