Cornell professor explores education, politics and inequality

By Patricia Leboeuf

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Professor Suzanne Mettler. (Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)

Professor Suzanne Mettler. (Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)

Professor Suzanne Mettler of Cornell University presented her conclusions on the political aspects of higher education funding and its affect on socioeconomic inequality last Thursday in the University of Massachusetts Campus Center.

The talk was titled “Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream,” after her most recent book with the same title. It was part of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences’ yearlong lecture series “Perspectives on Inequality.”

Mettler researched the politics of higher education access and funding through extensive data collection and interviews with politicians, lobbyists and interest groups. She found that, in many cases, the system of higher education is stratifying society and exacerbating inequality.

“There’s a political failure going on,” she said.

She said that young Americans today are only a few percentage points likelier to have college degrees than Baby Boomers. She also found that the likelihood of a student graduating college by the age of 24 is highly correlated with his or her economic background. Students from households in the top 25 percent of income are much more likely to graduate than students from less privileged backgrounds.

Mettler’s research has made her doubt the common explanations for dramatically increased college costs.
“It’s tempting to say it’s just tuition (prices going up),” she said. “(But) the federal government has always subsidized tuition and state governments have as well.”

While researching, Mettler was also told students drop out because they cannot compete academically.

“In other words, it’s all about aptitude,” she said. “I found this explanation to be inaccurate.”

In fact, Mettler’s research found that the most common reasons students drop out is because they’re having trouble paying tuition, and if grades are a factor, low grades are often a reflection of having to work too much to concentrate on school.

Mettler attributes much of the stratification of higher education to failed policy maintenance.
“I came to the conclusion that public policies (are) not being managed. Policies, like anything else, need basic maintenance,” she said.

This lack of maintenance leads to unintended consequences that impact the higher education system, she added.

She determined that diminishing opportunity to receive federal student aid is part of the cause of higher education inequality, due to the failed policy maintenance of programs like the Pell Grant.

She said that Congress, instead of raising the maximum Pell Grant amount, has raised student loan borrowing limits, which “leads us to where we are today.”

Mettler also researched what she calls the “lateral effects” of other policies on higher education policy.

States have mandatory spending in many budget areas, including Medicaid, which they are legally obligated to provide, said Mettler. College spending, however, is discretionary, meaning that policies that mandate funding of certain categories have caused decreased college funding.

However, Mettler believes that problems with policy maintenance and the lateral effects of other policies do not mean, “we’re destined to have poorly functioning policies.”

“The big problem with policy maintenance is partisan politicization,” she said. This leads to stalemates around higher education policy, Mettler said. When politicians do reach across the aisle and work together in higher education policy, they are often responding to the needs of large interests like corporations, not the American people, she said.

“Today, we’re spending more than ever, but we’re not spending it in ways that mitigate inequality,” she said.

The nature of discretionary college spending, combined with lower revenues from taxes in the vast majority of states, have led to the dramatically increased tuition costs that modern students have come to expect.

“Colleges and universities had to provide a way to make up the difference,” she said.

Their method was to raise tuition.

Mettler said that the cost of education goes up due to the expense of hiring trained professionals to teach.

However, she said this problem of who will fund higher education, the state or the students, is not present in the handful of states that have continued to raise revenues via taxes.

Mettler also spoke about her research into for-profit colleges.

“When I began this project, I wasn’t intending to study for-profit colleges,” she said. However, she began to study them due to their increasing enrollments.

Mettler found that there are great statistical differences in student loan borrowing and graduation rates between students at non-profit institutions and those at for-profit schools like DeVry University and the University of Phoenix.

She found that only about 22 percent of students graduate at these type of schools, yet nearly 100 percent borrow money to attend. Often, the jobs they receive upon dropping out are ones they could have worked without a college degree.

“These are the students who are actually worse off than if they’d never went to college,” she said.

Politically, Mettler found that for-profit colleges are entitled to receive up to 90 percent of their revenue from the government, through things like grants and veterans’ benefits, due to the Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965. According to her research, most of these colleges receive about 86 percent of their revenue from federal sources.

“They are making profits, but American taxpayers are paying the bills,” she said.

As recently as the 1980s, most Americans would not support for-profit colleges, Mettler said.

The combination of failed policy maintenance, lateral effects of other policies and a changing political environment have served to increase inequality and further stratify American society, according to Mettler.

“This is a whole story on unintended consequences,” she said. “We are denying to too many young people (the opportunity) to engage in the adventure of learning…(and) this puts the American dream increasingly out of the reach of ordinary Americans.”

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at [email protected][liveblog]