Suzanne Mettler spoke at Hamilton on April 24 about her new book titled Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream. Mettler, the Clinton Rossiter Professor of American Institutions in the Government Department at Cornell University, addressed her concern that the American higher education system—though historically “associated with a path of upward mobility”—is becoming “increasingly stratified” and exacerbating inequality in the nation today.
Mettler began her lecture with a juxtaposition of two American’s experiences in the education system. First, she highlighted the story of a WWII veteran whom Mettler met 15 years ago while doing research on the GI bill. From providing for his certification as a TV repairman to successful completion of engineering school, the bill proved a huge resource for him and other veterans who received “more education than they could have expected.”
Next, Mettler told the more current story of Martine Leveque, who at 43-years- old decided to begin a nursing program at a for-profit college. Feeling pressure to gain a degree, compete for employment, and reap the benefits the college promised—the main marketing strategy of Everest College—Leveque unknowingly signed many papers and loan agreements with astronomical interest rates. Eventually, she graduated with $33,000 in debt and no nursing job to show for it, as employers “did not respect” her college credentials.
Both stories illuminate the issues Mettler believes are most threatening to the system of higher education in America today. She explains that the difference in educational experiences is a “political failure” because lawmakers have failed to “update and maintain policies” to make them work for the current day. Often, policies created at earlier points in time remain in existence but hold less significance. Mettler calls this densely cluttered political terrain “Policyscape,” in which policy design affects unintended consequences, and lateral effects occur.
However, Mettler recognized that policy maintenance becomes difficult and “varies according to political context.” She presented data and graphs illustrating the negative correlation between polarization and educational reform proposals. These phenomena, along with “plutocratic governance,” yield negative outcomes on all public policy regarding education. This explains the Obama administration’s “watered down” rule-making efforts.
Despite the clear obstacles present in Mettler’s data and analysis, she urged listeners to find a new way to move forward with the future of the higher education system in America. “We have a long history of promoting higher education for public purposes…but today I think we are squandering that legacy.” She warned that there are very “grave consequences for so much of what the United States stands for” in terms of equal opportunity; the resulting inequalities, she claims, will ruin chances to invest in the economy and hinder the fostering of “civic engagement and leadership for the next generation.”