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The Colleges are Alright


Ethan W. Ris (@ethanris) is an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Nevada, Reno, and the author of Other People's Colleges: The Origins of American Higher Education Reform.

This post is part of a series looking at the law and political economy of higher education.

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American higher education is stratified. (I probably didn’t need to tell you that.) Some colleges and universities have higher status than others, as measured in prestige and resources, and the pecking order is a ceaseless obsession for institutional administrators and journalists. Furthermore, scholars and policymakers alike have sounded the alarm about postsecondary stratification, linking it to today’s extreme income inequality and the sociopolitical conditions that produce it.

But stratification is not a dire problem. I don’t like it, but as a historian of higher education I know that it has always existed and is now much less of a problem than it once was. Most importantly, as I will argue here, the American system has developed in such a way that stratification does not forestall opportunity.

Opportunity is not a given; in many respects our stratified system pulls wool over the eyes of the underprivileged – we provide the illusion of abundant access while actually blocking pathways to the bachelor’s degree and beyond through mechanisms like underfunded community colleges, the remediation trap, and the student loan industrial complex.

But in another way, we also dupe the overprivileged by granting them access to, and the impetus to fight over, elite institutions that are ultimately a footnote in the larger story of American higher education. Their belief that the “Ivy Plus” schools are the whole shebang is both wrong and useful. To understand the situation, we need to look back at a (failed) crusade to restrict access to college.

Bachelor’s Degrees as a Zero-Sum Game

In the spring of 1905, something odd happened. The nation’s two richest men, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, Sr., donated identical amounts of money (totaling half a billion in today’s dollars) to endow two parallel nonprofit organizations – the world’s first permanent philanthropic foundations. These foundations had the same mission, which was not to eradicate disease, end war, or solve poverty. Their mission was to reform American higher education.

In my book Other People’s Colleges, I show how the Carnegie Foundation and General Education Board (not to be confused with the general-purpose Carnegie Corporation and Rockefeller Foundation, which came later) worked in tandem to do the opposite of what most higher education reformers seek to do today: restrict access to college. By calling for the closure of “weak” schools and promoting non-baccalaureate junior colleges and technical institutes, they pursued a vision of college education as zero-sum, with degrees parceled out judiciously in the service of social efficiency. College was meant to be the province of the nation’s future leaders – not the masses who had recently overtaken the once-prestigious high schools.

Their chief foe was not ambitious students, but rather the laissez-faire conditions that had allowed colleges to proliferate across the country. In business and philanthropy alike, industrialists like Carnegie and Rockefeller hatedthe free market, seeing it as duplicative and inefficient, standing in the way of a vertically integrated system in which everything lined up rationally and sent spoils to the men who best knew how to spend economic and sociopolitical capital. When it came to higher education, this meant that the American practice of letting just about anyone open a college and start competing for students was a grave social problem. It would be far better to concentrate the privileges of higher education in a handful of elite institutions, using the same logic that legitimated their monopolistic industrial trusts.

Stratification and Cooling Out

The reformers who led the two foundations and their allies in Washington and state capitals intended to impose order. This meant hierarchy: a stratified system in which the upper strata set the rules for everyone else. On one level, they believed that their reforms would mean that the higher education sector would shape American society, rather than respond to its whims. But on another level, the reformers saw hierarchy as something that needed to be imposed upon the higher education sphere itself.

Some reformers pursued the dream of a national university, which went nowhere despite its potential to exert normative control over every other institution. Others satisfied themselves with the idea that each state would be dominated by a single research university, capping a local pyramid. The flagship would set the rules and offer all of the meaningful degrees; below it would be feeder schools, especially junior colleges, constituting the base of the pyramid. Across most of the Atlantic seaboard, well-established private institutions would sit atop the systems. (This helps explain why the eight Ivies are spread over individual states – New York is the only exception, but Columbia’s Manhattan and Cornell’s Upstate have always been worlds apart.) In the rest of the country, public flagship institutions would play the leading role. The reformers funneled money and resources to this select group of elite universities and encouraged lesser institutions to either shut down or convert to junior colleges.

And as for the students? Plenty of reformers were happy to tell them to get lost. The president of Dartmouth, a former business consultant, declared in a 1922 speech that “too many men are going to college…. There is such a thing as an aristocracy of brains, made up of men intellectually alert and intellectually eager, to whom increasingly the opportunities of higher education ought to be restricted.” He went on to warn of the danger posed when inferior young people are “withdrawn from useful work to spend their time profitlessly” in college. In other words, as a more recent commentator explained, “the world needs ditchdiggers, too.” In the case of women, the higher education reformer Booker T. Washington was typical: “It is discouraging to find a woman who knows much about theoretical chemistry, and who cannot properly wash and iron a shirt.”

Many reformers took the path of urging students (especially those with marginalized identities) to divert their dreams of college education and instead attend technical schools like Washington’s Tuskegee Institute or junior colleges. The latter option was particularly dangerous, since it explicitly dangled a chance at a four-year degree and yet placed students in an institution that didn’t offer that degree. The junior college (now the community college) was designed by the president of the University of Chicago; he convinced a group of four-year liberal arts colleges to decapitate themselves in exchange for affiliation with the great university. Their best and brightest students would transfer to Chicago after two years, while the rest stayed put in Des Moines and Kalamazoo and received an associate’s degree. These sub-par students were “cooled out” of their baccalaureate aspirations, a term that Burton Clark borrowed from Erving Goffman’s description of how con men placate their victims.

A Crucial Oversight

Kendric Babcock, the top federal bureaucrat dealing with higher education and an ardent reformer himself, defended the Chicago model by making an assumption that turned out to be dead wrong: “no institution has an unlimited capacity of men, means, and equipment, and when it gives its time to those ill disposed to college work and unfit it is wasting energy.”

The screwup was in assuming that flagship public institutions would maintain their elitism alongside their private peers. But whereas the privates were accountable to alumni-dominated boards of trustees, the publics were accountable to state legislators, who were in turn accountable to voters, who were going to be damned if their tax dollars went to support a hyper-exclusive research university that would reject their sons and daughters. And indeed, the public schools went on a growth tear. In 1920, undergraduate enrollment at the University of Chicago was 3,850; 200 miles due west at the University of Iowa, it was 3,500. A century later, Chicago enrolls 7,650 and Iowa enrolls 23,100. One doubled, the other nearly sextupled. The same pattern happened everywhere.

This type of growth was hardly a panacea – even mid-century reforms like the celebrated but problematic California Master Plan created more spots for students at elite public universities but simultaneously shunted more low-performers to community colleges. And some flagship universities became hyper-elite despite their expanded size. Today, UCLA, Berkeley, Georgia Tech, Michigan, UNC, and UVA each admit less than 20% of their applicants. But they are outliers.

The early 20th century reformers utterly failed in walling off access to the bachelor’s degree. Yes, they managed to throw up roadblocks that still stand, but the zero-sum conception was gone even before the birth of student aid programs in the decades following WWII. Undergraduate enrollments grew at a broad range of institutions (including former non-baccalaureate teachers colleges, which became today’s “regional” universities), but the story is still remarkable if we just look at flagship schools, which grew in size and prominence even in states where an Ivy League university was supposed to dominate (think Rutgers, or the University of Massachusetts).

Duping the Elites

Flagship public universities and land-grant institutions remain surprisingly accessible, even as they function at very high levels of research productivity and economic impact. Out of the 146 “R1” universities in the Carnegie Classifications, 107 are public institutions. These are elite universities by any measure. But they are also reachable.

In this forum, my friend Marshall Steinbaum painted an opposite picture a few months ago. In his telling, “exclusionary castle walls and country-club-like admissions policies” are the hallmarks of a stratified higher education system that certainly includes public universities:

[U]niversity administrators in hock to wealthy trustees and state legislators who desire maximum control for minimum financial investment have turned public institutions into de facto private ones by encouraging out-of-state (and international) admissions and doling out “merit-based” financial aid to secure enrollment from desirable admits—the children of the elite, who confer prestige and are certain to be future high-earners, i.e. destined for success in current parlance. Talented in-state students without politically influential parents, meanwhile, are shunted off to other campuses or institutions down the prestige pecking order, where aid policies are less generous and access to professional opportunities less numerous.

I’d argue that having “politically influential parents” isn’t exactly necessary to gain admission to even an elite public school like UCLA (where the modal student is a middle-class Asian American), let alone the average flagship university. Let’s take the institutions where Marshall and I work: respectively, the University of Utah and the University of Nevada-Reno. Both are state flagships founded more than 150 years ago. Both are R1 universities. Both have excellent faculties (present company excepted) due in part to the nationwide overproduction of PhDs, which has generated some very nice trickle-down effects.

And yet both are ludicrously accessible by any definition. Marshall’s university accepts 87% of its undergraduate applicants; mine accepts 86%. Tuition and fees at Nevada in 2024-2025 will total $9,578 for full-time in-state students (Utah’s are a touch higher). If they qualify for a full Pell Grant, my undergraduate students are on the hook for $2,183 per year. That’s not free, but it’s also coverable with about 5 hours per week of campus work-study salary. These are not “exclusionary castle walls.” (Of course, tuition and fees are not the only costs college students incur, and as Sara Goldrick-Rab shows, many students at public universities graduate with debt even if they receive Pell Grants.) And to reiterate once more, these numbers are for flagship R1 schools. If you want to bash us for being “no-name” institutions in far-flung states – check out peers like Oregon (86% acceptance rate), Missouri (77%), Rutgers (66%), Indiana (80%), or Kentucky (95%).

But please, don’t tell any of this to the modern-day Carnegies and Rockefellers who are obsessed with cultivating an “aristocracy of brains” at a handful of highly selective colleges and universities. They are fully bought in to what I have called the “covert status hierarchy” of American higher education, in which institutions can be legally identical (i.e., the University of Nevada has all of the same rights and privileges as Yale) but are nevertheless widely understood to occupy very different positions on the pecking order. Attending an elite school conveys advantages that graduates exercise through preferential hiring processes, social capital gained on campus and in alumni groups, and special statuses that they can pass on to their children. All of this happens covertly, while the overall system maintains its democratic basis.

The status hierarchy works to a certain extent – it is good to go to Yale! But it’s hardly the whole story. We live in a society where the President of the United States went to the University of Delaware, the CEO of the world’s most valuable company went to Auburn, and corporate recruiters say that the most qualified graduates come from Penn State. Privilege is concentrated in the Ivies and their ilk, but it is hardly restricted to them. It is easily found in at least one public university in every state. These schools have varying degrees of accessibility, as explained in this forum by Jonathan Glater and Adriana Hardwicke, but their doors are nevertheless open to students without stellar resumes or wealthy parents. And they are the real powerhouses of the American higher education system, partially because of the political forces that have pushed them to eclipse elite private institutions in size – public R1s enroll 2.5 million undergraduates, while private R1s enroll just 330,000. It’s not even close.

You wouldn’t know that from listening to the rantings of hack politicians and asshat hedge fund managers, obsessed with the utterances of Harvard students and Columbia professors. And I say: let them keep it up. We long ago moved past the notion that hyper-elite universities would be the arbiters of American economy and society, but if they want to keep believing it, no problem by me. The longer we can keep them thinking that the world runs on New Haven time, the better. Their loud ignorance allows the actual engines of American higher education to keep humming along in the background.