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Carrie Welsh  00:04

You’re listening to Ethics and Education. I’m Carrie. This episode is about how we should think about higher education in such an unequal society. Can college really level the playing field? In the United States especially, we tend to think of higher education as a mechanism of social mobility and equality of opportunity. But is that a good way to think about it? Here’s a thought experiment. You’re given a whole lot of money to invest in a group of babies who are born into highly deprived circumstances. And you have two options. Option A is that you let everything be how it is now until the person turns 18. And then you do as much as you can to make them as successful as possible at that point. Or there’s option B, you start investing seriously, and that young person’s development at birth, paying attention to education, health, social circumstances.


Mike McPherson  01:21

We come pretty close to choosing A. And yet, it seems to me if you really face that question in any real world way, you would definitely go for B. And I really would like to get more people to think that way.


Carrie Welsh  01:39

That’s Mike McPherson. Mike is an economist, he’s been a college president. And he was also president of the Spencer Foundation, which studies issues in education and which funds our work. He and Sandy Baum wrote a book called can college level the playing field. Sandy is a higher education economist and a senior fellow in the Center on Education Data and policy at the Urban Institute.


Sandy Baum  02:04

We have both spent our entire careers thinking about higher education and thinking about access and success and inequality in higher education. And we think it’s very important. And we want to emphasize how much we want that to improve and how much we want higher education, people participating in higher education and policymakers to continue to value that and improve it. But it cannot be at the expense of preparing people. And as as Mike just said, we have to do more to focus on young people. And we also have to think–we really haven’t talked about the labor market part of this. Look, Black college graduates make much less than white college graduates because of the racial discrimination in the labor market. And then they have many more demands on them in terms of accumulating wealth and supporting family members. So it’s not enough just to let people out into the world. Given the current inequalities, we have to think of higher education as part of a larger society. And we have important efforts as well as severe problems throughout.


Carrie Welsh  03:11

Over their many years of working in higher ed, Mike and Sandy saw that there was a lack of awareness that higher education actually does exist in a larger social framework.


Sandy Baum  03:22

It’s our feeling that it’s much more helpful to look at higher education in the context, both of what happens to people before college, and what happens to people later in the labor market. So a world which was much more equal, would lead to a higher education that is much more equal than then what we have now. That doesn’t mean colleges and universities can’t do anything. We think they can do a lot and should do more than they do. But we do think a framework in which people think about the larger lifecycle role of higher education is instructive. The paradox is that on an individual level, doing well in higher education definitely does open doors to opportunity that wouldn’t be available otherwise.


Carrie Welsh  04:11

But by the time people get to college, their opportunities have already been shaped heavily by the experiences they’ve had so far.


Mike McPherson  04:18

A tremendous amount of the sorting happens before you ever get to college.


Carrie Welsh  04:26

Harry Brighouse and Hannah Bounds spoke with Mike and Sandy last summer. Harry is a philosopher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And Hannah is one of Harry’s former students, who worked with us at the Center for a few years.


Hannah Bounds  04:29

Could you say a little bit more about how the economic background inequalities within our society influence who goes to college and then resultantly like how well they do?


Sandy Baum  04:48

Yeah, I mean, it’s really clear that the amount of money that gets spent on you both by your parents and by society as a whole is going to have a big influence on how prepared you are to go to college and to succeed in college. So it’s not just that, oh, there’s not the money in your pocket at the time that you turn 18 to pay for college, which, of course, is a problem for many students. It’s that you didn’t have the resources, all those years while you were growing up.


Mike McPherson  05:22

You know, one of the parts of the book that I paid a lot of attention to was comparing poverty levels, particularly child poverty levels, in European countries and in the United States. And it is just stunning, when you look at this in detail, how tolerant we are in this country of living conditions that simply are not allowed to exist in Northern Europe. And in other advanced countries in the world, it seems obvious, but it’s also supported by evidence that living growing up in extreme deprivation has lasting consequences. And, and these, those are then reflected in what your higher education opportunities look like. They’re reflected in how likely you are to graduate from high school, which on the whole, we think everybody graduates from high school. But that is so not true. If you look at some parts, particularly of urban areas, and actually a lot of rural cases as well, the impact of early life on later opportunity is just very strong.


Carrie Welsh  06:30

Even within higher education, there’s startling inequality. More successful students attend better funded institutions with other more advantaged students. Y


Mike McPherson  06:41

ou know, I do think there is a kind of one could say perverse logic to the way this plays out. I think a very important moment in the development of public higher education was Clark Kerr, who was the president of the University of California in 1960.


Carrie Welsh  06:59

Clark Kerr was a legendary leader in public higher education. In 1957, he famously said that the Chancellor’s job was, “providing parking for faculty, sex for the students, and athletics for the alumni.”He came up with the master plan for California higher education.


Mike McPherson  07:20

And Kerr said, Look, we’re going to divide the population into three groups.


Carrie Welsh  07:24

If you were in the top 12% of the population, ranked by high school grades and test scores, you were eligible to go to the University of California campus. If you ranked in the top quarter, you could go to a California State College, where the government would spend considerably less on you than at a University of California campus. And if you didn’t make it to either of those, you could try a community college where the government would spend even less.


Mike McPherson  07:53

Now, if you persuaded yourself that the differences you’re seeing in those three populations are in some sense, natural or inborn, then you would say, Well, that seems fair enough. I mean, some people are just good at this, and we should invest in them. And some people just bad at this, and we shouldn’t invest in them. The problem is, this is a socially constructed, not unnatural circumstance, right? That it’s not that the people who wind up at University of California are sort of genetically better, or are more deeply connected from birth with capacities to learn, it’s that they’ve been for the most part, the biggest part of the explanation is they’ve been in very different environments. And once you recognize that what you’re doing with a system like that is endorsing and riaan reinforcing the inequality. So what we wind up saying is, the easier it’s likely to be for you to manage college, the more money we’re going to spend on your college education; the harder it is going to be for you to succeed, the less investment will making. And if you just step back and think about what do we what are we trying to do with higher education? That just seems perverse.


Carrie Welsh  09:19

If you think about that California example, and that sorting of students, you might think, well, sorting is bad. We shouldn’t sort students. After all, it’s not really their fault that they don’t test well or don’t have good enough GPAs. So we should just randomly assign people to different kinds of institutions. Sandy says that’s not the solution.


Sandy Baum  09:38

The fact is that people are in different places at the time they get there. They have different needs. They’re going to respond differently to different environments in different circumstances. And if you throw people who you know don’t have, you know, who have an elementary school reading level into the University of California with students who are the ones who are accepted there. Now, it’s not going to really work well for them. People have different needs. It’s okay to have selective institutions. The problem is that people have unequal opportunities to prepare to be in those selective institutions. And then of course, there are admissions problems in those institutions where they could have a more socioeconomically diverse student body. But I think it’s important to say that we don’t we see solutions in less stratification in higher education. But we’re not suggesting that we shouldn’t have different academic environments for students who come to college in different places.


Carrie Welsh  10:45

There’s also a different problem. Some students attend less selective institutions than they could have been admitted to. This is called undermatching.


Hannah Bounds  10:55

Can you talk more about why under matching is something we should be worried about? I guess more specifically, does it have a negative impact and some students more so than others? And then what about elite institutions? How should they respond to under matching?


Mike McPherson  11:08

I think there are a couple of dimensions to think about with with under matching, choosing to go to an institution that’s not the most selective one you could attend generally has a negative effect on your likelihood of college success, your likelihood of graduation, under matching is much more likely to happen for people from low income or minority backgrounds. And that reflects, among other things, big differences in how much and how good advice they get about their choices. Given our extremely obscure system of providing financial aid to two people, it’s very common for for, for people from these kind of backgrounds, who are don’t have the benefits of an elite high school where there are better ratios of advisors to students, they just take one look at the sticker price, even even have, you know, the University of Illinois, let alone the University of Chicago and say, well, there’s no way we could pay that. It’s an I think it’s also humiliating for me to think I’m going to try to send my kid to the college and then I’m going to have to tell her that she’s not able to go. So let’s just stay away from the whole thing and go to the nearby community college.


Carrie Welsh  12:25

Mike offers two ways to deal with the problem of under matching.


Mike McPherson  12:29

One is move the people to different places. The other is to make the places where the people mostly go, work better. And undermatching is sort of strategy A, but investing in broad access institutions is strategy B, and strategy B is quantitatively much more important. Even though I mean, absolutely, Princeton, or the University of Wisconsin, Madison should do as much as they can to get people who would qualify if they applied to apply.


Sandy Baum  13:10

It’s important though, also to not just think about Princeton, and in the University of Wisconsin, Madison, because the concept of under matching applies to students who, you know, could go to a public abroad access public four year institution, and instead they go to a community college, because it’s very difficult, there are a lot of barriers to transform from a community college to a four year college. So the same student is more likely to end up with a bachelor’s degree, not everybody wants a bachelor’s degree that so I’m not saying every student should do that, who could get in. But for many students, if they start out at that four year institution, it doesn’t have to be one of the institutions that we were people listening to this podcast think of is where they want to send their kids. I mean, there’s a whole continuum there. And thinking about the different opportunities offered to different institutions remains important.


Carrie Welsh  14:00

So what’s the advice here for college leaders and boards of regents? What can policymakers and colleges do to mitigate their role in an unequal society?


Sandy Baum  14:11

Well, I mean, I think we’re saying, first of all, the focus of this conversation is usually on elite colleges, what could they do? They could accept more low income students. And we say, Yeah, sure. I mean, if you’re an elite college, we are sure there are more low income students who would qualify and could succeed and you should accept them and support them. But we also think that that’s going to be a tiny number of people, no matter what very few people go to those colleges and that those institutions have a greater responsibility. They have a social responsibility.


Carrie Welsh  14:42

They shouldn’t just help students who do make it to their campus. They could have programs that would help students in the community to prepare better for college, for any college. And quality of instruction is crucial. We have an episode about this too called The Plumber Episode.


Sandy Baum  15:01

Also a big thing–and I think that Harry probably gets credit for articulating this first and best–about, you know how you educate the students you do enroll, and that you can produce people who will be better citizens, and will contribute more to making the world a less unequal place. That’s a big contribution that these institutions that have a lot of resources can make. So in other words, it’s not just what you give to your students, but it’s what they then give in the future to the people in their world, when they talk about resources, they’re not just talking about the price of admission, institutions need to know that it’s not just about being having a low tuition price and being say free, but it’s about the resources that they spend on providing academic and social supports to students. So there is a lot that institutions can do some of it obvious and institutions are doing it. And some of it requires thinking a little bit more flexibly about the institutions role in society.


Carrie Welsh  16:14

One of the reasons students go to college is to improve their employment prospects. College graduates earn nearly twice as much per hour as their peers who only graduate high school. This is known as the wage premium.


Hannah Bounds  16:29

So one of the reasons people go to college and policymakers promote college attendance is that there’s a wage premium attached to college graduation, the whole tenor of your book is that we should try as a society to reduce the wage premium. That’s not paradoxical, but it is striking. So not many people go around saying like, Let’s reduce the wage premium to college graduation.


Mike McPherson  16:52

Yeah, I mean, if just in a quantitative sense, a big source of the inequality in American society is the inequality between those who haven’t haven’t completed college, especially if by completing college, you mean a bachelor’s degree. If you could, if you could shrink that difference, it would by itself be a, you know, a meaningful contribution to reducing inequality.


Carrie Welsh  17:20

One of the negative consequences of the high wage premium is that it makes it tempting to think that the whole point of college is just to make more money. Mike says that’s a really unhealthy way to think about college.


Mike McPherson  17:34

There is a lot more to be sought and and gained from your college education, just from your own personal point of view. If you open your mind to a broader set of ways that college can be helpful in your life, we are evidently too money obsessed, and driving the idea that that college opportunity is all about money, just reinforces that, that unhealthy view. So if we had a more ample supply of college graduates, if we had a world in which people who wanted to achieve at these levels, were given the support to do it. That would increase the supply of more educated labor, if I can use the economist lingo, and reduce the supply of people who are going to wind up doing low paid wage labor of one kind or another, and would contribute toward lesser inequality.


Sandy Baum  18:42

Another piece of this is that we would like to see opportunities for people who don’t have a college education to improve not everybody wants to go to college, or like the idea of sitting in a classroom any longer than they already have is really unappealing. It’s not what they’re cut out for. And there shouldn’t be ways to earn a living wage, and have a skilled occupation without going to college. And I mean, the fact is, now for many skilled occupations, you have to go to college, it’s not that you have to get a bachelor’s degree, but you have to go to a community college or some sort of institution get an associate degree or a certificate. And it shouldn’t be possible for people who only have a higher higher education to live reasonably. And that would mean you know, it would raise the earnings and the opportunities for people without a college degree. That in itself would narrow the earnings premium to a college degree, right. You don’t have to lower wages for college graduates. What we want to say is like people should not be living in such difficult circumstances, just because they didn’t go to college or didn’t complete a college credential.


Carrie Welsh  19:49

What about the idea that what would level the playing field is free college for everybody? We talked about this in our episode called The Right to Higher Education. Sandy and Mike are skeptical about free college. Sandy says that, first of all, making it free doesn’t make it equal.


Sandy Baum  20:08

I think it’s instructive to look at free K-12 education in this country and recognize one, as we mentioned before, the people who don’t graduate from high school tend to be from low income families. And it wasn’t because they couldn’t pay the tuition–there is no tuition. They go to very different K 12 institutions. Making it free has not made it by any means equal. So it’s not equal just because it’s free. Also, in most places, we require people to go to school until they’re 16. So everybody goes, we don’t require people to go to college. And I don’t think anybody is suggesting that. And the people who go to college are disproportionately people, people from more affluent backgrounds.


Carrie Welsh  20:56

That’s not only because of the tuition. Sandy says that for many low income students, it is already free to go to a public institution. There are need based financial aid policies. They should be more generous. And Sandy says she’s not saying they’re adequate. But many low income students do have their tuition and fees covered. And still, many of them don’t enroll. And when they do, they still face big financial barriers.


Sandy Baum  21:25

A big part of going to college is covering your living expenses. We have another episode about this called The True Costs of College.  It’s true, you have to eat and pay for housing, whether you’re in college or not. But you do that with your wages, like you get a job. And if you’re in college, and you don’t have time to work full time, how are you supposed to pay for those expenses. And I think the extreme focus on free tuition detracts from how the question of how low income students are going to actually survive in a reasonable way while they are in college. So that is not going to solve this problem. And of course, we’re not talking about making private colleges free, right. And private colleges are the right answer for for many people. So and the other thing is that we know, there’s a lot of evidence that the resources that colleges have to spend on student support are more significant in terms of college success than just lowering the price a little bit. So if you have $1,000, should you lower the tuition by $1,000? Or should you spend it on helping these students to succeed and providing supportive educational environments? And the answer is the latter. And free college puts that at risk.


Carrie Welsh  22:38

This podcast is about ethics and education. And questions of value permeate these debates about what to do in higher education. So you have a very egalitarian starting point. The values you invoke are broadly liberal, egalitarian values that place you firmly to the left of the center. So how should Republicans and conservatives who don’t agree with you about these basic values respond to the empirical analysis you provide? We’re inclined to think that perhaps they wouldn’t draw the policy conclusions that you’ve drawn.


Sandy Baum  23:12

Two things: one is that I expect that we will get more objection from the left, actually, because we might be accused of like letting higher education off the hook of not blaming higher education for all of the problems about which we’re concerned. So maybe that’s possibility. I don’t I think that’s misplaced. I think we do think higher education has responsibility. But also I think that you know, people from all different political persuasions, not all of them, but many articulate the same goals, it’s that they think that the means for improving society are different. So in other words, you might think that it’s not the government’s responsibility to try to reduce inequality, it doesn’t mean you like any quality necessarily, it just means that you think that the solutions lie elsewhere, that data in our book, our data, and they are descriptive, and they do not come from any political persuasion. If you don’t care about inequality, if you think, look, you know, some people are rich, and some people are poor, and then their kids are going to be rich and poor, and that’s the way life is, we’re probably not speaking effectively to you, but what we do speak to is, if you have this goal, how can you think about achieving it?


Mike McPherson  24:34

The book is framed around an assumption, which I think we do something to defend, that a more equal society, and a society that has more equal opportunity and more social mobility is better than one that has less, and not everybody agrees with that. I’m thinking of a congressman who once said that equal opportunity should include an equal opportunity to build a dynasty for your children. I mean, if you’re coming from there, I think we’re gonna have trouble communicating. If I think of like, you know, who are my intellectual heroes in this context? You know, I think of somebody like Anthony Atkinson, who said that the way to deal with inequality is to deal with it everywhere all the time.


Carrie Welsh  25:36

Thanks for listening to Ethics and Education. In the shownotes we have a link to Mike and Sandy’s book, and to the other episodes I mentioned. This piece was produced by Harry Brighouse, Hannah Bounds, and me, Carrie Welsh. Music by Fred Table and the Chairs.