Book Review: Degrees of Inequality

Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream By Suzanne Mettler (Basic Books, 2014).

Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream
by Suzanne Mettler (Basic Books, 2014).

Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream
By Suzanne Mettler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The US at one time was distinguished for its commitment to universal primary and secondary education. And since World War 2, through the GI bill, the Pell Grant program, federally backed student loans, and government support of higher education, the opportunity for college education was put within reach for nearly all Americans, no matter what social class they came from.

Suzanne Mettler argues that during these years, this was accomplished by the creation of policies that formed a “policyscape” conducive to making this dream accessible to all. She contends that, just like the landscape around one’s home, the “policyscape” requires continued maintenance in order to accomplish its desired outcomes.

What this book does is chronicle how, beginning in the 1980s a series of broader changes combined with sporadic maintenance of the policyscape has created a growing divide between the elite who can afford higher education at prestigious or flagship universities, and the rest of American society. Even for those from these backgrounds who do enroll, the story is one of increasingly high student debt, falling graduation rates, and growing default rates on loans.

What has happened? Mettler chronicles several factors. One is the decline in state support of public institutions, made up for in rising tuition bills. A second factor is the rapid rise of the for-profit schools like the University of Phoenix, Kaplan University and others who propose flexible scheduling and appeal to many “non-traditional” students yet have dismal success rates measured by graduation and employment. Combine this with relaxed requirements by the Department of Education which has been heavily lobbied by the for-profits, you have a situation where 80 to 90 percent of the money going to these institutions comes in the form of federally subsidized grants or loans, and yet only 35 percent or less of the students are graduating. And, in recent years, we have had a contentious and polarized Congress that has turned any legislative reforms into a political football resulting in either lop-sided policies supported by one party, or no policy reform.

Mettler’s obvious prescription is for a return to rigorous, bi-partisan work addressing higher education funding policies at federal and state levels. She sees this as a vital national interest not only to serve all of our citizens but in fact the national interests and competitiveness of the country. And this seems good and right to me as far as it goes.

What I don’t see Mettler addressing is the contribution of universities and colleges themselves to the rising costs of education. What I do not see addressed is the issue of the growing higher ed bureaucracies at many universities and the expensive conferences and retreats attended by so many administrators that are paid for on the student’s and taxpayer’s dime. While Mettler asks critical questions about whether for-profits are delivering what students and taxpayers are paying for, I don’t see her asking these same questions of public and private non-profits. And while she alludes to admissions policies that give preference to the academically gifted who often come from affluent backgrounds, I think she could be far tougher on the question of how universities and colleges themselves are blind to their own elitism.

Mettler gives us an important critique of the failures of our public policy toward higher education and the game-changing impact of for-profit schools. However, she does this in a way that seems to absolve public and private non-profits from taking a hard look at their own contribution to the growing inequities in and lack of public support for higher ed. A public that witnesses lack of cost-controls, combined with revelations of sexual assaults on campuses and speech codes applied to commencement speakers may not readily be inclined to ante up for greater support to higher ed unless these institutions show that they have gotten their own houses in order.


Thank-you to Bob for sharing Review: Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream from his blog Bob on Books — a complex topic requiring more attention. Desiring to see/hear Suzanne Mettler articulate her perspective, I commend to you a presentation she gave on Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Policy Sabotaged the American Dream. ~ Thomas B. Grosh IV, Associate Director, Emerging Scholars Network

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Bob Trube

Bob Trube is Senior Area Director for InterVarsity's Graduate & Faculty Ministry team in the Ohio Valley (Ohio, West Virginia, and Western Pennsylvania) and leads the ministry to graduate students and faculty at The Ohio State University. He resides in Columbus, Ohio, with Marilyn and enjoys reading, gardening, choral singing, and plein air painting.

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