Working Against Equity

Descriptive statistics sometimes do not receive the respect that they deserve. It’s unfortunate, for in the right hands, with wisdom, judgment and expertise, descriptive statistics can make a complicated story clear. One of the better uses of descriptive statistics that I have read in quite some time is found in Charles T. Clotfelter’s Unequal Colleges in the Age of Disparity. Comprehensive without bogged down in detail, the book explains much about higher education today. It’s informative, well organized, and more than a little concerning.

Clotfelter is the Z. Smith Reynolds Professor of Public Policy and Professor of Economics and Law at Duke University and a prolific scholar. The book’s perspective is shaped a wealth of data as well as his experiences as a faculty member, as an administrator (he has held several posts), as the parent of college students, and as a researcher. Organized into four sections: Context, Supply, Demand and Consequences, Unequal Colleges consistently examines three major themes: diversity, competition, and inequality. He looks at the big picture of higher education (only baccalaureate institutions – no community colleges) with a sharp eye on the variety of kinds of institutions and the growing inequality among institutions of higher learning. Like other examples of businesses in markets, colleges and universities, Clotfelter argues, respond to economic and political forces and act in predictable ways. The key question he thinks about, as do many of us in higher education, is whether our “system” offsets increasing inequality or exacerbates it.

Unequal Colleges balances different types of data and information, from individual institutions to focused reports to national overviews. He is attentive to numbers, trends and history. Clotfelter often illustrates change with accessible examples. For instance, he tracks Illinois State University, Boston College, and Tennessee Wesleyan from 1970 until recent times to make clear how different missions, markets, wealth and opportunities lead to different institutional strategies and outcomes. Complementing the overview of context is solid historical information, changes in policy and practice, and key demographic shifts in the nation and in higher education. However, deeper dives into institutions, especially non-elite institutions, is relatively uncommon in what is already a hefty tome.

When it comes to the section on supply the book stresses perhaps its most important observation, which is drawn from the gospel of Matthew: “For unto ever one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but for him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” The Matthew effect was promoted by sociologist Robert Merton. It is more than the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Examined systematically, it explains that left unchecked, inequality will inevitably increase – and Clotfelter shows us how this has played out in academia. A wealth of data and research in higher education supports the Matthew effect.

Clotfelter tracks the Matthew effect across time, individual institutions, and types of institutions. He explains how it explains many changes in higher education, from tuition discounting to college rankings to college athletics. He connects these shifts with changes on the demand side, emphasizing the sorting of students by race, socioeconomic status, and college. Clotfelter uses the Freshman Survey, a national survey, to interpret college student preferences and tendencies within this context. He is looking for better correlations among students and types of institutions. So many different factors are at work in this section that it is more difficult to draw conclusions.

In the section “consequences” Clotfelter emphasizes that there is no one best study about the impact of college. He presses on with two tough questions. Can colleges be vehicles of economic mobility? And is the high degree of inequality justifiable on the basis of economic efficiency? For the first question, the outcomes of college appear positive, even with great ranges by individual and institution. Clotfelter does not propose a counterfactual, which I believe is a missed opportunity. If not higher education, what other means of economic advancement exist in our knowledge based economy?

Caroline Hoxby’s research figures prominently in Clotfelter’s examination of higher education’s efficiency. He asserts that greater specialization can lead to more effective matching of student and institution. He also believes that it has helped create outstanding world-class institutions in the United States. On the other hand, Clotfelter notes three powerful forms of inequality that the “system” perpetuates: by race, by socioeconomic bias, and in comparisons across colleges. In other words, as the baccalaureate has become more prevalent, the differences in student graduate outcomes by college, or by type of college, have become more extreme.

Somewhat a function of Clotfelter’s argument and also his areas of interest, the book’s attention is drawn consistently to the difference between the very wealthy institutions and the rest of higher education. It does not give the same level of attention to the distinctions between flagships and second-tier public institutions, or to mid-tier privates compared to heavily tuition-driven privates. There are many complicated stories in the broad middle of the higher education sector. This is where most students live and most academicians work, but it is often left relatively unexamined. I do not think it fair to critique Clotfelter for not writing a different book. He does look at HBCUs and religious institutions. However, his return to the elites has an impact on some of the book’s broader conclusions.

For example, Clotfelter believes that higher education and government have made concerted efforts to eliminate discrimination and advance equity. At the same time, he notes that practices in admissions and by parents tend to work against equity. I would emphasize that commitments to equity – in admissions, budgeting and practice – differ greatly across institutions and types of institutions. Access to resources and sensitivity to larger political social environments matter greatly. As a result, when Clotfelter writes that that he finds the persistence of intensified socioeconomic stratification remarkable in higher education, I am far from surprised. When we look at that broad middle of higher education, I think that we see an industry or sector under tremendous economic and political stress. In other words, it is possible to identify different trends and consequences amid the wealth of information Clotfelter provides.

Unequal Colleges examines the relationship between college funding and college outcomes, but it does not hone in on academic quality as a function of funding or of mission. Focused and committed colleges can advance equity, but they often do so without larger structures of funding models that support those efforts. Similarly, another important issue mentioned but not systematically examined by Clotfelter is the distinction between data and public perception. What and how public think about higher education can have as important an impact as what the numbers tell us.

Those criticisms notwithstanding, Unequal Colleges is an extremely useful addition to the contemporary scholarship of higher education. It contains troves of data, organized in accessible and helpful structures, and it advances many cogent arguments. It is a good book.

David Potash

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