Dear Commons Community,
Joe Bruni has a preview of a new documentary entitled, Ivory Tower, due to be released next month. According to Bruni, the documentary delves into the issue of American higher education’s role in maintaining the stratification of social class in our society. Specifically:
“…as I watched it, one theme in particular kept capturing my attention. One set of questions kept coming to mind. How does our current system of higher education square with our concerns about social mobility? What place do the nation’s universities have in our intensifying debate about income inequality? What promise do they hold for lessening it?
The answers in “Ivory Tower” and beyond it aren’t reassuring. Indeed, the greatest crisis may be that while college supposedly represents one of the surest ladders to, and up through, the middle class, it’s not functioning that way, at least not very well.”
Bruni goes on to describe the inequities that exist in admissions into the most selective colleges. In sum, these schools attract and admit students from the most privileged families.
Bruni also refers a companion piece by Paul Tough in The Times Magazine that illuminates another troubling way in which college favors the rich. “Whether a student graduates or not seems to depend today almost entirely on just one factor — how much money his or her parents make,” Tough writes, adding, “About a quarter of college freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution will manage to collect a bachelor’s degree by age 24, while almost 90 percent of freshmen born into families in the top income quartile will go on to finish their degree.”
None of this is new to those of us who work in higher education. Polices and practices such as legacy admissions have exacerbated the problem for decades. However, as someone who has devoted an entire career to public higher education, I am glad we have a robust and well-endowed private sector in this country. These colleges and universities are recognized as among the best in the world and they set a standard for all of us to aspire. They are also relatively free of governmental intervention either at the federal or state level which can stifle sound education practice. If they can only figure out how to make their admissions more equitable, they would be the true shining lights in the higher education sphere.