Is Higher Education Still a Democratizing Force Today?

College attendance in the United States has traditionally been related to social class. For those not inheriting land, college provided an alternative. Affordable colleges in rural New England, for example provided respect and employment in schools and churches. Their main role was to teach liberal arts, philosophy, and theology. Today, the university system appears to be very different, fraught with online colleges and universities that emphasize science and programs that can cost families tens of thousands of dollars.

The cost of college in the nineteenth century was not that expensive. Modest-income families were more concerned with losing the benefits of a family member’s labor, then funding college. Yet, receiving a college degree did bring prestige and professional advantages to the family.

The Morrill Act of 1862, gave profits from the sale of land to establish educational programs in agriculture, science and liberal arts. And by 1890, both the Hatch Act and an expanded Morrill Act, increased federal funding and new land-grant campuses, including the creation of Negro colleges.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, universities became secular, and started to teach new subjects, particularly the sciences. Still, a university degree was not necessary for a career, except in a few professions.

During the last half of the twentieth century, the number of universities and colleges in the West rose, and the number of students increased.

Before World War II, elites had rarely been educated at universities. After World War II, they attended elite universities, and the criterion for their recruitment became graduation from elite schools. As a consequence, post-World War II, elites are recruited through education in elite universities to which admission is conferred following success at meritocratic exams.

Lani Guinier, head of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department under President Bill Clinton, believes meritocratic selection should result in the best being chosen to enter the top ranks of public service or business.

She says, `elite schools and universities have a tendency to recruit in a non-diversified way, resulting in certain classes being over-represented. And despite meritocratic recruitment, elite universities actually recruit from the “aristocracy” with a resulting “stratification” of recruitment. Over time, individuals from the same background are accepted to elite universities not because of cronyism, but because of the recruitment system, even though it is meritocratic.

`I discovered that these so-called markers of merit did not actually correlate with future performance in college but rather correlated more with an applicant’s parents’ and even grandparents’ wealth. Schools were substituting markers of wealth for merit.’

Surprisingly, a study at the University of Michigan Law School found that those most likely to do well financially, maintain a satisfying career, and contribute to society, were black and Latino students who were admitted pursuant to Affirmative Action. It claims the use of standardized tests is backfiring on our institutions of higher learning and blocking the road to a more democratic society.

It claims race is being used as a stand in for class. That people look at race and see race because it is highly visible but they don’t see class. And that “meritocratic” standards are keeping out poor and working class whites, especially the rural poor.

Author and Harvard University English Professor Louis Menand says college serves two purposes: a meritocratic selection process, designed to identify the highest-performing cohort for advancement into demanding professional schools. Secondly: it embraces a more inclusionary, democratizing goal of training young people into “mainstream norms of taste and judgment, to make your citizenry more informed and responsive.”

If you’re a Theory 1 person, “you worry that the bachelor’s degree is losing its meaning” as it gets dumbed down for the masses.

If you’re a Theory 2 person, you see students and their parents mortgaging their futures to pay $50,000 to attend an elite institution such as Princeton or Stanford and don’t agree.

“I’m a Theory 2 person,” Menand said. “I think everybody should go, and it should strengthen our democracy.”

Estelle Shumann is a writer interested in a wide range of educational methods. Having played several instruments and been exposed to many art forms in her childhood, she finds that solving the education puzzle today requires more than simply a large budget. She currently writes and researches about online education Read other articles by Estelle.