In 1971, a lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court that would have a profound impact on the way American schools are funded. Serrano v. Priest was the first in a wave of elementary and secondary school finance cases that would touch nearly every state in the nation and continues to this day. Existing funding regimes have been torn down, constitutional crises provoked, and billions of dollars spent in the name of achieving financial equity between school districts that serve the rich and the poor.
Nothing similar has ever happened in higher education. Desegregation lawsuits have brought some increased equity, but states have never had to defend the fairness of their higher education financing systems in court -- at least not on grounds of economic discrimination as opposed to racial bias.
It's certainly not because no inequities exist. Nationally, public four-year universities whose students arrive with an average SAT score (or ACT equivalent) greater than 1050 spend roughly $3,725, or 45 percent, more per student than universities where student scores fall below that cutoff. These numbers only include spending on instruction, academic support, and student services -- not research.
Because SAT scores track closely with family income, first-generation status, and the quality of high school preparation, they're a good proxy for how states choose to allocate resources between advantaged and disadvantaged students.
And as the table below shows, some states disparities are far above the national average. (My methodology is available here.)
Per Student Funding Gap
at Institutions With Lower SAT Averages
|South Dakota||-$8,822||North Dakota||-$3,893||Maryland||-$1,579|
|New Jersey||-$4,370||Missouri||-$2,382||New Mexico||n/a|
This kind of analysis works better in some states than others. In Iowa, all three institutions are above the threshold. In Washington, D.C., the one public university is well below. (Overall, the ratio of students attending public four-year institutions where median student SAT scores above 1050 to those attending institutions at or below that threshold is about 3 to 2).
But some states have a lot of both kinds of university, and spending on students is almost uniformly higher in the institutions with higher SATs. And no state has a larger disparity than in California, the home of Serrano v. Priest, where the elite public universities spend over $10,000 more per student than the rest. That's more than the total amount of student spending at most public four-year institutions. This analysis, moreover, doesn't include the community colleges that enroll nearly half of all new freshmen every year. If it did, the disparities would be larger still, particularly in states like California where the majority of students begin in low-spending two-year institutions. Yet nobody is agitating for a higher education spending lawsuit in the Golden State.
This is partly because the legal hurdles are lower for elementary and secondary students seeking redress. While all state constitutions have an "education clause" mandating the provision of free K–12 schools, they don’t offer similar guarantees of postsecondary education. Serrano, however, was based on the California constitution's equal protection clause. States might contend that college students, unlike their K–12 counterparts, aren't bound to under-funded local schools. But it's hard to argue that disadvantaged undergraduates have equal access to high-spending public universities that limit admission to the "top" 10 percent of high school graduates -- students who are disproportionately well-off -- and routinely cite the number of applicants they reject as a measure of their success.
But the true causes of complacency run deeper. Money and opportunity are distributed this way because many people believe it is right and just to do so. Indeed, the California system has served as a model since it was developed by Clark Kerr and others 50 years ago. It reflects the ideals of meritocracy, of great universities open to all who are willing to work hard enough to merit admission. There's truth in this, of course, as first-generation college students enrolled at Berkeley, UCLA, and other University of California campuses can surely attest. People also believe that the best and brightest represent a wise place to invest resources, to ensure that the nation's future political, economic, and cultural leaders are properly educated and trained.
But in the long run, the great pyramid of American higher education, which gives more to those who arrive with more and less to those with less, represents an ethos and theory of resource allocation whose time is passing. There are few -- if any -- opportunities today for students who stop learning once they reach adulthood. Higher education is for everyone now. That's why nearly 70 percent of high school graduates are going directly to college -- a record high. If the wise men who enshrined education into state constitutions as an inalienable right in the 19th century confronted the same task today, they might well conclude that those guarantees should extend beyond the secondary years.
And everything we know from educational research -- at both the K–12 and higher education level -- suggests that academically at-risk students are more sensitive than their higher-achieving peers to differences in the quality of education they receive. Elite institutions packed to the gills with valedictorians are showering resources on students whose abundance of economic, academic, and social capital all but guarantee success, regardless of where they go to college.
Low-wealth, less-selective institutions, by contrast, serve many students with only a tenuous grasp on the ladder of opportunity. Many of those students got a lousy high school education, struggle to pay for college, and contend with multiple demands of employment and family. These are people for whom higher education is everything, the difference between one kind of life and another. And while there are surely countless professors at their colleges who are giving them a fantastic education, they do so in spite of our current financial priorities, not because of them.
These inequities are partly an artifact of history. The K–12 schools developed from the ground up, with tens of thousands of local districts serving all classes of students. The higher education sector, by contrast, was built from the top down, starting with the most well-off students and expanding to include the masses only in the last 60 years or so. Long-established institutions like Berkeley have had many decades to accumulate resources, and in some ways it's hard to blame universities for striving to be bigger, richer, and better.
But the leading institutions are failing to meet their obligation to the greater public good. Instead, the flagship universities routinely throw their weight around in statehouses, seducing politicians with promises of the next Silicon Valley or Research Triangle while gobbling up a disproportionate share of public dollars and leaving crumbs for the community colleges, regional campuses, and former normal schools that actually educate most undergraduates. Their lobbyists in Washington pursue a similar agenda at the national level.
And instead of working to make the higher education pyramid a little less steep, many less-elite institutions are trying to climb it, funneling money to marketing campaigns and enrollment management consultants in an effort to attract "better" students -- even as more and more students (who are by that way of thinking, "worse") are arriving at the front door of the academy, desperately needing to learn. These institutions are responding to the reigning system of values and institutional incentives, driven by popular college rankings and a sense that institutional quality is a function of how smart students are when they arrive, not how much they learn before they leave. As F. King Alexander, president of California State Long Beach, recently said in explaining why he wants to buck this trend, "all of the pressure flows in one way -- to do a good job with the best prepared students."
Last year, the state of New York settled a contentious, decade-long school finance lawsuit, a direct descendent of the original Serrano litigation. Despite millions spent on expensive lawyers, attorneys for the state couldn't convince New York's highest court that routinely providing thousands of dollars less per student to the mostly-poor, mostly-minority students in New York City was constitutionally permissible. The resulting billion-dollar settlement will provide smaller class sizes, better early education, and competitive teacher salaries in schools serving disadvantaged students. Advocates and civil rights groups praised the ruling as justice, delayed but certainly deserved.
In many states, students who have benefited from similar efforts at the K-12 level will enter a higher education system with a very different attitude toward economic fairness. Nobody is standing at the courthouse door waiting to petition on their behalf. At least, not yet.