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Success is not a Zero-Sum Game

I must admit that I’ve never been very concerned about “undermatching”—the fact that academically gifted low-income students are underrepresented at elite universities.

Partly, I thought that the many well-meaning programs that target these students create great photo-ops for a few institutions for doing what they should have been doing anyway, but did little to help the thousands of low-income students who have limited or no options for college. As a graduate myself of an open access public university, I am somewhat offended by the narrative that success is assured only to those who go to Harvard and the like. But mostly, my lack of enthusiasm reflects my disdain for zero-sum games, and especially the idea that success is a limited quantity allocated by higher education to a few lucky people.

Elite higher education is perpetuating inequality, and perhaps even causing it.

Most now know that success in some form of postsecondary education is required to reach or stay in the middle class, and the idea that at least two years of education beyond high school should now be expected of—and provided to—everyone is getting serious traction. But the data on higher education’s success in reducing inequality tell a depressing story and keep getting worse and worse. The latest evidence shows how most selective universities are failing to enroll thousands of highly qualified low-income students even though these institutions profess to want to and have the financial resources to do so. The result is that these students end up enrolling in institutions where their chances of success are much lower, further exacerbating inequality in our society. Rather than creating the elusive level playing field, higher education—and certainly elite higher education—is perpetuating inequality, likely increasing it, and perhaps even causing it.

It’s unsurprising that this evidence comes from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Tony Carnevale and his colleagues have written on this issue many times, and I know from personal experience how passionately Tony feels. As a foundation program officer working with him on the grant that helped set up the center, I told him to forget about working on undermatching for my aforementioned reasons. In spite of the elegance of my arguments, I knew even then that Tony would ignore me. Of course, I’m glad he did.

Ultimately, this is not about whether there is a relationship between opportunity for higher education and growing inequality in society—that relationship was documented a long time ago. Now the question is whether higher education—or at least certain segments of higher education—is implicated, and specifically whether government policy and funding should continue to support institutions that are making a bad problem worse.


Related:
Making room for poor kids at rich schools | APM Reports | May 16, 2017