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


From 1945 to the mid-1970s, the rate at which Americans went to and graduate from college rose steadily. Then, however, the rate of college going and completion stagnated. In 1980, a quarter of adult Americans had college degrees; today the figure is roughly the same. What happened? In her book Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream (Basic Books, 2014), Suzanne Mettler argues that American students--and particularly those from the lower and lower-middle class--have been priced out of good higher education. Over the past several decades, college tuition has risen far faster than inflation and, of course, the ability of disadvantaged parents and students to pay for it. Mettler points out that the colleges themselves are usually blamed for the spike in tuition, and she agrees that they are to some degree at fault. But she argues that the Federal and State governments are the primary culprits: in the era of growth, they generously supported higher education; today, through neglect or wilful action, they have allowed government support for higher education to dwindle. Federal Pell grants, for example, used to pay for a good chunk of tuition at a four-year state university; now they pay for only a fraction of that cost. States used to give their universities generous support; now these universities are expected to pay much of their own way, usually through increases in tuition. Mettler points out that for-profit universities have stepped into the breach. They are, she says, innovative, and that's good. But, according to Mettler, they offer an inferior product at inflated prices, effectively taking tuition dollars away from better and in some cases comparably priced state institutions. And, because they receive a very large proportion of their income from Federal and State tuition grants and loans, they are effectively subsidized by the taxpayer. Listen into our fascinating discussion.

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