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Is There Class Warfare Amongst Colleges, Too?

We've all heard the adage that the rich get richer, and in trying economic times it seems all the more relevant. Unfortunately, that saying can apply to more than just wealthy individuals. Institutions of higher learning, too, are exhibiting signs of class stratification that help the wealthy and hinder the less well-off... and we're not just talking about tuition. What does a class divide mean for colleges and universities?

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By Eric Garneau

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The Purpose of Education

For citizens of the United States, education plays a central role: it's the great democratizer, a system by which any person can better themselves and excel in life so long as they work hard and exhibit the right aptitude. To quote The Chronicle, education is 'the arbiter of economic opportunity.' Yet recent studies have shown that one's class status goes a long way in determining the school one attends - and further, that the status of the school one attends says a lot about one's future career. That doesn't sound so arbitrary.

As The Chronicle points out, this is a form of tracking, an educational system that essentially locks you in to one set path as soon as you start your journey. And while some education experts actually argue in favor of the system, many find it a distasteful way to maintain society's status quo - in other words, doing exactly the opposite of what an education is meant to do.

Institutionalized Inequality

Though tracking has traditionally been thought of as a K-12 trend, there are a couple key ways it's manifested in colleges. The first is fairly obvious: economically well-off students tend to flock to highly selective, expensive institutions, while those with less money crowd more open 4-year schools and community colleges. That in itself wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, except for research showing that as the selectivity of schools drops, so do graduation rates and job placement/satisfaction. Statistically it seems that if/once you make the decision to go to college, the path laid out by your economic status may be difficult to shake.

None of this is to suggest that lower-income students can't get into top schools, or that they won't succeed in less selective institutions. However, numbers do indicate that their chances of doing so are significantly less: The Chronicle reports that 90% of students at the most competitive schools graduate, while in noncompetitive schools only 35% do so. Further, graduates at the most competitive institutions tend to end up in high-paying managerial careers that provide ample autonomy. While graduates at less-selective institutions still make acceptable salaries, they face lessened job security and satisfaction.

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Any Solutions?

One of the reasons that students fare better at more selective/expensive colleges is because those schools are less dependent on external funding to run their operations. As state money has dried up in trying economic times, many less well-off institutions are forced to make serious cuts that hinder their students and/or to lean on students to carry more of the financial burden, such as in California, where according to The Economist this year for the first time students at public universities will have to pay more of the cost of their education than the state will. Meanwhile, more selective schools can typically count on endowments and other such fundraising from wealthy benefactors (as well as tuition payments from upper-class families) to keep things running smoothly. The system perpetuates itself.

In The Chronicle, authors Anthony P. Carnevale and Jeff Strohl make several recommendations to break the higher education system of its tracking problem. The solution here seems to boil down to each side needing to become a little bit more like the other: while highly selective schools should make a serious commitment to lower-income students, less selective institutions, especially community colleges, need to focus on developing quality programs to rival those at top schools. If each side adopts the tactics of the other, ideally both will meet students in the middle and open up a wider range of possibilities for all learners, regardless of their social/class stratification. The consequences of not doing so could be severe: education, meant to be America's great equalizer, could instead install itself as a subtle but deadly enforcer of inequality for decades to come.

According to recent research, five schools do a great job providing for underprivileged students.

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