Combating Inequality in Higher Education
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Combating Inequality in Higher Education

Yale’s Hall of Graduate Studies is no more.

At a cost of $162 million, the nearly 90-year-old structure has been transformed into the Humanities Quadrangle, housing 15 departments and programs, the Whitney Humanities Center, the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, workspaces and a lounge for graduate students, a 180-seat auditorium, and a 90-seat film screening room.

Like Yale’s Sterling Law School, the university decided to preserve and renovate an older structure rather than demolish and start anew. A former dean hailed “Yale’s visionary approach,” which “will bring new life to an iconic building.”

To put the sum spent on the Humanities Quadrangle in perspective, Yale recently spent between $500 and $600 million (in 2013 dollars) to construct two new residential colleges housing 800 students and is currently spending another $471 million on a physical sciences and engineering building and garage, and at least $150 million on its Commons dining hall and the adjacent Memorial Hall into a “campus center” and “central hub of student life.”

(Of course, one might contrast these facilities with Yale’s main graduate student residence, Helen Hadley Hall, an undistinguished brick structure lacking style, ornamentation, craftsmanship, which one wit likens to “a sort of modernist prison.”)

One could scarcely imagine a more vivid example of the stratification of higher education -- except perhaps for the $1.4 billion (in 2016 dollars) that Harvard is spending to renovate its undergraduate residences.

No wonder that David Kirp, a professor of public policy at Berkeley, makes the case in The New York Times that elite universities should clone themselves.

The institution would not have to lower its standards, because the best and brightest would queue for admission. Professors with glittering résumés would jump at the opportunity to teach there … Cities would perform handstands to land such a school.

The idea is certainly appealing, and not unimaginable. As Kirp points out, “If Yale can open a campus in Singapore, why can’t it start one in Houston?” After all, if Chicago’s affluent suburbs could build a New Trier West, couldn’t Yale or Stanford?

It might be rightly objected that many of these institutions do offer lower cost, broader access educational alternatives. After all, doesn’t Harvard Extension offer the academic side of a Harvard education?

But Kirp isn’t talking about university extensions or MOOCs. He’s calling for clones of the existing institution, with all that such institutions imply in terms of facilities and faculty.

If that idea makes sense, why hasn’t it taken place?

Certain answers come to mind. Because:

  • Exclusivity is part of these institutions’ appeal and self-image; expanding a luxury brand risks reducing it to a commodity.
  • The cost of expansion, without compromising the established standard, is exorbitantly expensive, evident in the cost of the residence halls constructed by Yale and USC.
  • These universities’ model depends on large numbers of students who are well connected and can pay full freight and whose numbers are limited.
  • These institutions receive a disproportionate share of federal grants, and that source of funding can’t be expanded much beyond where it currently stands.

Still, Kirp is on to something. When Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Yale expend as much as they do on facilities, no matter how attractive or worthy in purpose or motivation, they distort the higher education universe as a whole. This level of spending forces other institutions to compete in a contest that they cannot win. It also diverts spending from these institutions’ core educational purposes.

And yet, I do think that Kirp’s call to clone the elites is wrongheaded. Instead of intensifying higher education’s stratification, let’s consider lifting up all nonprofit institutions. It’s far easier to elevate an existing institution than to construct a wholly new one -- unless one can count on substantial contributions from a foreign government.

As my colleague Michael Rutter observes, few would claim that the Ivies offer an exceptional educational experience when compared to smaller, more learning-focused institutions or high-quality specialized programs. “Shouldn’t students (and parents) realize there are dozens, hundreds of excellent choices.”

Talented faculty are now omnipresent across the higher educational landscape.

So what should we as a society do? Here are a few thoughts.

  1. Encourage donors to redirect their gifts. As a sector, we need to encourage donors to follow the example of MacKenzie Scott and Robert Smith and direct their generosity to institutions where their gifts will make the biggest difference.
  2. Urge legislatures to fund institutions more equitably. Why not embrace the principle that we often advocate for K-12 education: direct funding toward those institutions that serve students with the highest needs.
  3. Redistribute resources. Higher education is not the only educational domain where terrible inequities in the distribution of resources abound. Many public school systems have elite high schools that attract significant alumni donations. Many of these districts have responded by requiring those privileged schools to share half of their donations with other schools. States might consider a new kind of tax, which insures that a portion of every gift goes into a pool to improve quality across institutions. And the federal government might do more to ensure that grants and research funding be distributed across a broader range of institutions.
  4. Slow the amenities arms race. We need to curb spending on amenities that do not contribute to access and learning. I understand that it isn’t easy to distinguish between grandiose expenditures that far exceed their educational purpose and spending that truly meets genuine student needs, but this isn’t impossible, if only indirectly. For example, in exchange for federal funding, impose a requirement that 25 percent of undergraduates be Pell Grant eligible.
  5. Pressure or incentivize the more highly selective institutions to do more to serve the public interest. Resource-rich institutions do need to do more. Why are they so averse to sharing their courses with other institutions? Or to awarding credit for their MOOCs? Or creating partnerships with underresourced institutions? Or admitting a significantly larger number of transfer students? Or establishing a new kind of school of general studies that aggressively reaches out to underserved student populations and provides them with wraparound services and 360-degree support, including the financial aid they need?

The New York Times columnist Frank Bruni once published a book entitled Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be. A reassuring thought, but one that we know isn’t true.

Those who graduate from name-brand institutions benefit in many ways: from their pedigree. From their network of connections. From the recommendations they receive. From the exposure they get when they participate in internships.

Those of us fortunate to teach at the more selective, better-resourced institutions have a moral duty to look beyond our 40 acres and serve those who aren’t so lucky. Our universities benefit extraordinarily from government support. It’s time to give back.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.



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