Income and wealth inequality in the United States, which has become even more pronounced since 1967, continues to interfere with the national need for an increasingly sophisticated and skilled workforce and citizenry. Federal financial assistance to financially needy college students is a rational response to this recognized social and economic inequality. About 30 years ago, in ways clearly demonstrated by Tom Mortenson in ”How to Limit Opportunity for Higher Education 1980 – 2011,” federal and state policy shifts placed an increasing share of the cost of higher education on students and their families, turning higher education into a commodity provided to those who could pay. Primarily as a consequence of these policies and the associated spiraling costs of attending college, the growth in the portion of our population with a college degree has been slow, increasing from 17 to 30 percent over the past 30 years. Strikingly, the gains were made primarily by those from the wealthiest backgrounds (18 percent increase) in contrast to a small 4 percent growth, over the same 30 years, for those in the lowest socioeconomic quartile.
Globally, as various analyses show, while many countries are making solid progress in educating their populations, the United States is losing ground, slipping from first to 12th among 36 developed countries in percent of the population with a degree. Although American students from the upper quartile of the national income distribution can continue to have high expectations of completing college, their success alone is not enough for our economy and society to thrive.
If we are to educate the nation to meet the current challenges of the global economy, our democratic society, and our planet, we need to use all means possible to educate the largest number of people possible. This will require increased financial assistance for low- and moderate-income students. Federal and state support for education is the single most rational investment we can make in our future. Yet we continue to face threats even to the inadequate support that remains today. Some current candidates for president of the United States oppose any federal role in supporting college students.
The return on investment (tax dollars) in Pell Grants and other forms of federal assistance is currently being measured by the number of degrees produced for the number of grants given. Since data are not systematically collected, it is estimated that 30 to 50 percent of Pell recipients graduate with a bachelor’s degree in six years or an associate degree in three years.
Whatever the exact number, for some observers it is easy to conclude simplistically that the "return" is not worth the investment of tax dollars -- even at a 50 percent degree completion rate -- because those who receive Pell Grants aren’t measuring up and therefore Pell funds must be reduced. Interestingly, there is no national discussion about the effectiveness (or not) of tax credits for college tuition, which benefit those with higher incomes. And merit aid by institutions of course helps the wealthier and leaves less need-based aid.
Although finances are often among the primary reasons for student dropouts or stopouts before degree completion, higher education cannot avoid its share of the responsibility. We cannot evade blame for our own inability to innovate and respond to the students in our colleges and universities by simply pointing to their lack of financing and lack of academic preparation for higher education. We college and university administrators and faculty need to own this issue. We need to own the overall 56 percent graduation rate for all those who enroll in college -- keeping in mind that graduation rates correlate perfectly with family income level. In 2009, the bachelor’s degree completion rates for those who enrolled in a college or university were 19.9 percent for those from the lowest income quartile, 28.2 percent for the second quartile, 51.4 percent for those from the third quartile and 97.9 percent for those from the top quartile. (Mortenson “Family Income and Educational Attainment 1970 to 2009”).
These data make clear that the crisis in higher education completion rates in the United States is really a crisis of completion for this who are not wealthy.
Copious data, like Mortenson’s cited above, indicate that a caste-like education system exists in America. The economic group you are born into is the best predictor of your access to and completion of a college degree. This should be unacceptable to a democracy. It should be unacceptable to higher education. How can we feel good about being part of an enterprise in human development that solidly succeeds only with wealthy people?
Instead of asking what’s wrong with the students who don’t complete a college education, we need to admit that something is wrong with the educational experience offered to almost half of the students who actually enroll. What is the matter with the way we are educating in the 21st century that results in these low success rates for those that we enroll? Only if you come from the highest income quartile (over $100,000) can we feel comfortable that you will be a “good fit” and continue on the path of intellectual and social development that will lead to the awarding of a college degree.
Is it not the responsibility of educators to address this caste-like education system and not leave the statistics for policy makers to use as justification for eliminating financial support for those who need it? Pell Grants are currently being defined as a failure based on the graduation rates of those who receive them. Implicit in the condemnation is a suggestion that the recipients of Pell Grants are not “college material” and so they fail to complete college. But while Pell Grants are necessary, they are not sufficient: Pell Grants are the means to assist in access and persistence; they are not sufficient on their own to get to the desired ends.
If Pell Grants are to succeed, then institutions must recognize their responsibility to craft learning environments for the 21st century --- collaborative learning environments that engage the whole student as well as the whole campus in learning. If we are serious about changing graduation outcomes, all current systems and processes, that constitute the way we do business, need to be reexamined putting at the center a student who may not have been on a path to college since birth and who must integrate financial and perhaps familial responsibilities into their life as a student. Rather than having this reality be the cause of attrition, how can higher education be reshaped to be inclusive of these full lives? How do recruitment, student life, financial aid, the president’s office, advising, the athletic program, learning inside and outside of the classroom reshape themselves to better meet students where they are rather than where they might be if they came from more privileged backgrounds? Those in higher education are often called upon to apply their wisdom and creativity to finding solutions and improving outcomes that benefit all of us. Educational inequality, particularly as it resides right within the academy, is such a challenge.
The question of financing students and financing the institutions who serve them should be addressed collectively as well: How can costs be reduced by more institutional collaboration and less duplication of services? The demographics of those who earn their living in the academy and are responsible for the values and processes of higher education differ from those who we most need to increase their success in the academy. Yet it is exactly those who are now underrepresented in higher education -- those from low-income backgrounds, who are likely to be the first in their families to attend college, and who are likely to be from communities of color and from rural America; those who may well be the recipients of state and federal assistance -- who are the 21st-century Americans who must take their rightful places in higher education, in our economy and our civil society.
Without them, America will continue to lag behind on the global economic, political and cultural stage. All of these areas are dependent on an educated population that can create far less inequality than we seem willing to accept today. Without them, we are giving up on the power of our country to further evolve the reality of democracy as an inclusive model of how people can progress. Instead, we are accepting increasing inequality and division among people on all measures that matter.
What is the purpose of the 3000+ institutions of higher education in our country if not to meet these students where they are and engage with them in the process of their intellectual growth? And yes, I’ve been in the classroom and know how hard it is. It is extra hard if you can’t take learning outside of the classroom; if you can’t shed the mantle of your own Ph.D. and admit there is much you can learn from your students and from other educators on campus; if you can’t penetrate the elitist boundary between “student life” and “academics”; if the future of your job depends on enrolling “full pay” students and achieving high rankings in U.S. News & World Report; if you see other colleges as competitors for those students and those rankings; if you are forced to function narrowly within the hierarchy of your university and the hierarchy of higher education.
Educators have the capacity as well as the responsibility to discuss, imagine and ask for the changes that are necessary for education in the 21st century. Instead of measuring the “return on Pell,” we should be measuring the success of individual colleges and universities in adding value to our society by producing graduates from among those who have been and remain underrepresented. It’s a challenge that has been addressed by conferences, studies, books, and reports. But where are the regional and national standards to hold colleges and universities accountable for helping the country meet a critical need -- more college- educated citizens from all income backgrounds?
Those of us who have made both education and increasing social justice our life's work have a responsibility to do the work that needs to be done. It starts with being willing to change in order to help transform.
Gloria Nemerowicz, formerly the president of Pine Manor College, is founder and president of the Yes We Must Coalition.
In 2005, a court barred Vanderbilt from removing "Confederate" from the facade of a building, citing the terms of a gift. The university is returning the gift at today's value -- and will now remove the word.
Last month, while looking over thousands of listings for forthcoming books in dozens of university-press catalogs for this fall, I flagged 300 titles for further consideration as possible topics for future columns. Within that selection, a few clusters of books seemed to reflect trends, or interesting coincidences at least, and I noted a few of them here.
That survey, however unscientific and incomplete, was fairly well received. Here’s part two. As in the first installment, material in quotation marks is from catalog descriptions of the books. I’ve been sparing with links, but more information on each title is available from its publisher’s website, easily located via the Association of American University Presses directory.
Scholarly publishers might count as pioneers of what Jacob H. Rooksby calls The Branding of the American Mind: How Universities Capture, Manage and Monetize Intellectual Property and Why It Matters (Johns Hopkins, University Press, October), although the aggregate profits from every monograph ever published must be small change compared to one good research partnership with Big Pharma. Rooksby explores “higher education’s love affair with intellectual property itself, in all its dimensions” and challenges “the industry’s unquestioned and growing embrace of intellectual property from the perspective of research in law, higher education and the social sciences.” (Sobering thought: In this context, “the industry” refers to higher education.)
Making intellectual property more profitable is Fredrik Erixon and Björn Weigel’s concern in The Innovation Illusion: How So Little Is Created by So Many Working So Hard (Yale University Press, October), which treats “existing government regulations and corporate practices” as a menace to economic growth and prosperity: “Capitalism, they argue, has lost its mojo.”
If so, Google is undoubtedly developing an algorithm to look for it. At least three books on Big Data try to chart its impact on research, policy and the way we live now. Contributors to Big Data Is Not a Monolith, edited by Cassidy R. Sugimoto, Hamid R. Ekbia and Michael Mattioli (The MIT Press, October), assess the scope and heterogeneity of practices and processes subsumed under that heading. Roberto Simanowski’s Data Love: The Seduction and Betrayal of Digital Technologies (Columbia University Press, September) warns of the codependent relationship between “algorithmic analysis and data mining,” on the one hand, and “those who -- out of stinginess, convenience, ignorance, narcissism or passion -- contribute to the amassing of ever more data about their lives, leading to the statistical evaluation and individual profiling of their selves.” Christine L. Borgman focuses on the implications of data mining for scholarly research in Big Data, Little Data, No Data: Scholarship in the Networked World (The MIT Press, September), first published last year and now appearing in paperback. While “having the right data is usually better than having more data” and “little data can be just as valuable as big data,” the future of scholarship demands “massive investment in knowledge infrastructures,” whatever the scale of data involved.
Events in real time occasionally rush ahead of the publishing schedule. Several months ago David Owen advised the British public to “vote leave” in The U.K.’s In-Out Referendum: E.U. Foreign and Defence Policy Reform (Haus Publishing, distributed by the University of Chicago Press) but it reaches the American market only this month. Christopher Baker-Beall analyzes The European Union’s Fight Against Terrorism: Discourse, Policies, Identity (Manchester University Press, September) with an eye to “the wider societal impact of the ‘fight against terrorism’ discourse” in the European Union and “the various ways in which this policy is contributing to the ‘securitization’ of social and political life within Europe.” Recent developments suggest this will be a growing field of study.
The E.U.’s days are numbered, according to Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, because Europe Isn’t Working (Yale University Press, August). Or rather, more precisely, the euro isn’t. The currency “has failed to deliver on its promise of more jobs, more growth and greater equality,” and the E.U.’s “current policy of kicking the can down the road and hoping that something will turn up” can’t continue forever. A less fatalistic account of The Euro and the Battle of Ideas by Markus K. Brunnermeier et al. (Princeton University Press, August) traces the currency’s vicissitudes to “the philosophical differences between the founding countries of the Eurozone, particularly Germany and France.” But “these seemingly incompatible differences can be reconciled to ensure Europe’s survival.”
Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, it’s time to start phasing out paper money, argues Kenneth S. Rogoff in The Curse of Cash (Princeton, August). The bigger denominations ($100 and up) enable “tax evasion, corruption, terrorism, the drug trade, human trafficking and the rest of a massive global underground economy” and have also “paralyzed monetary policy in virtually every advanced economy.” Small bills and coins are not such a problem, but the Franklins (and larger) could be replaced by a state-backed digital currency. For now, Arvind Narayanan et al. reveal “everything you need to know about the new global money for the internet age” in Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency Technologies: A Comprehensive Introduction (Princeton, August), complete with “an accompanying website that includes instructional videos for each chapter, homework problems, programming assignments and lecture slides.” Perfectly honest and law-abiding people will find the book of interest, but it seems like a must-read for anyone with a professional commitment to tax evasion, the drug trade and the like.
As it happens, the fall brings a bumper crop of scholarship on crime, punishment and policing, at varying levels of abstraction and grit. Andrew Millie’s Philosophical Criminology (Policy Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press, November) is described as “the first book to foreground this emerging field” -- which it certainly is not. Whatever the contribution of the book itself, hype at this level counts as a species of counterfeiting. The anthropologists Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff compare developments in South Africa, the United States and the United Kingdom in The Truth About Crime: Sovereignty, Knowledge, Social Order (University of Chicago, December), while the contributors to Accusation: Creating Criminals, edited by George Pavlich and Matthew P. Unger (University of British Columbia, October) consider “the founding role that accusation plays in creating potential criminals.” Here we find another large claim: “his book launches an important new field of inquiry.” As an armchair criminologist, I am curious to see learn this differs from the venerable and well-worked field of labeling theory.
Closer to the street, Michael D. White and Henry F. Fradella consider Stop and Frisk: The Use and Abuse of a Controversial Policing Tactic (NYU Press, October) -- a practice much in the headlines in recent years, usually in connection with the issue of racial profiling. Their conclusions -- that “stop and frisk did not contribute as greatly to the drop in New York’s crime rates, as many proponents … have argued,” but also that “it can be judiciously used to help deter crime in a way that respects the rights and needs of citizens” -- are sure to provoke arguments from a variety of perspectives.
Forrest Stuart was stopped on the street for questioning 14 times in the first year of field work for Down, Out and Under: Arrest Policing and Everyday Life in Skid Row (University of Chicago Press, August), “often for doing little more than standing there.” He finds that the “distrust between police and the residents of disadvantaged neighborhoods” is “a tragedy built on mistakes and misplaced priorities more than on heroes and villains”; parties on both sides “are genuinely trying to do the right thing, yet too often come up short.”
Another ethnographic dispatch from the extremes of poverty, Christopher P. Dum’s Exiled in America: Life on the Margins in a Residential Motel (Columbia University Press, September) reports on the “squalid, unsafe and demeaning circumstances” of the housing of last resort “for many vulnerable Americans -- released prisoners, people with disabilities or mental illness, struggling addicts, the recently homeless, and the working poor.” The catalog entry for the book doesn’t mention it, but you feel the police presence all the same.
The overcrowding of American prisons is often explained as the byproduct of draconian mandatory sentencing laws, but Wisconsin Sentencing in the Tough-on-Crime Era: How Judges Retained Power and Why Mass Incarceration Happened Anyway by Michael M. O’Hear (Wisconsin, January) argues even in “a state where judges have considerable discretion in sentencing … the prison population has ballooned anyway, increasing nearly tenfold over forty years.” Over the same period, long-term solitary confinement has grown increasingly commonplace, as discussed in a column from six months ago concerning an anthology of writings by scholars, activists and prisoners. Keramet Reiter offers a case study in 23/7: Pelican Bay Prison and the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement (Yale University Press, October). The title refers to how many hours a day prisoners spend “in featureless cells, with no visitors or human contact for years on end, and they are held entirely at administrators’ discretion.”
The practice signals that prison authorities have not just abandoned the idea of reformation but moved on to something more severe: a clear willingness to destroy prisoners’ minds. By contrast, Daniel Karpowitz’s College in Prison: Reading in an Age of Mass Incarceration (Rutgers University Press, February) describes Bard College’s program offering undergraduate education to New York state prisoners. The book serves as “a study in how institutions can be reimagined and reformed in order to give people from all walks of life a chance to enrich their minds and expand their opportunities” while making “a powerful case for why liberal arts education is still vital to the future of democracy in the United States.”
Daniel LaChance’s Executing Freedom: The Cultural Life of Capital Punishment in the United States (University of Chicago Press, October) asks why, by “the mid-1990s, as public trust in big government was near an all-time low,” a staggering 80 percent of Americans supported the death penalty. “Why did people who didn’t trust government to regulate the economy or provide daily services nonetheless believe that it should have the power to put its citizens to death?” The question implies a belief in the consistency and coherence of public opinion that is either naïve or rhetorical; in any case, the author maintains that “the height of 1970s disillusion” led to a belief in “the simplicity and moral power of the death penalty” as “a potent symbol for many Americans of what government could do” -- and, presumably, get right. That confidence has been shaken by a long string of reversals of verdict in recent years, which “could prove [the death penalty’s] eventual undoing in the United States.”
Given the brazen, methodical and massively destructive corruption leading to the near collapse of the world’s financial system eight years ago, Mary Breiner Ramirez and Steven A. Ramirez call for a new variety of capital punishment in The Case for the Corporate Death Penalty: Restoring Law and Order on Wall Street (NYU Press, January). “Despite overwhelming proof of wide-ranging and large-scale fraud on Wall Street before, during and after the crisis,” the government’s response amounted to “fines that essentially punished innocent shareholders instead of senior leaders at the megabanks.” Crony capitalism and white-collar crime will continue until the danger of corporate conviction -- having the company’s charter revoked, i.e., putting it out of business -- is credibly on the table.
In effect, if corporations enjoy the legal protection granted them by the Supreme Court’s dubious but effective interpretation of the 14th Amendment, they also should face the possibility of being put to death -- after due process, of course. And fair enough, although the last word here comes from that bumper sticker saying “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.”