College and inequality

Most college professors are squarely on the left ideologically. They believe that part of their mandate is to reduce inequality, by helping to provide college degrees to all who qualify.

This always felt as strange to me. Higher education is highly subsidized, but the money goes overwhelmingly to people who are better off than average. So if you are a young adult, you either go find work, in which you will probably end up paying taxes… or else you attend college, in which case you will receive net benefits.

You are much more likely to go to college, and thus receive government subsidies if you are from a wealthier family. Moreover, you are more likely to go to college, and be subsidized, if you inherited from characteristics that are likely to turn you into a sought-after professional.

It does not stop there. Subsidies overwhelmingly go to elite schools. For example, in 2008, Princeton and Harvard received $105,000 and $48,000 in tax benefits per student.

We find an insane wealth concentration among the elite universities. The top 10 schools in the USA account for 5 percent of the world’s 211,275 people worth $30 million or more.

The lowly community college receives much, much less than elite schools. It should be clear that through higher education, governments subsidize the privileged.

But, at least, some students from modest backgrounds make it to good universities. However, it is far from clear that they will reap the same benefits as the well-off students. Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton wrote a book Paying for the Party. In their book, they examine how well college serves the poorest students. To the question “What happened to the working-class students you studied?”, they answer “On our floor, not one graduated from the university within five years.” And what about the well-off students? “They were able to recreate their parents’ success. They all graduated.” But maybe college at least allows people from a modest background to rub shoulders with well-off students? The researchers found that “cross-class roommate relationships were extremely negative for the less privileged person”.

Where do you think well-off young people fall in love? In colleges. If you care at all about inequality, then you should care about assortative mating. One of the most important factor in determining your future earnings is who you mate with. Elite colleges act as subsidized mating grounds for the privileged. So it is not just the subsidies to elite colleges go to the privileged, it also helps create and sustain assortative mating, a powerful driver for inequality.

And let us not forget age. Most elite colleges will actively discriminate against you if you are older and uneducated. If you are 40 and a truck driver, and you find yourself out of a job, don’t bother applying at Princeton, even if you had great grades in high school. Age is a mediating factor: people from more modest backgrounds tend to have false starts. If you discriminate against people because they had false starts, you are effectively discriminating against them because they come from a more modest background.

I am not concerned about inequality, but if I were and I thought that governments should subsidize higher education, then I would favor the following policies:

  • I would check that people from the lowest quintile receive benefits from higher-education subsidies that are larger than the benefits received from top 1%. Given that children from the last quintile rarely attend college at all, and when they do they rarely graduate, while children from the top 1% mostly attend college and mostly graduate, this would be a harsher requirement to meet than might appear.
  • Assuming that higher-education should be subsidized at all, then it should be subsidized in reverse ranking. Highly accessible community colleges should receive more from the state per student than elite schools. Students from the lowest quintile should receive the bulk of the support and funding.
  • Government subsidies should favor low-income students and the graduation of low-income students. I would never subsidize a school for providing to the well-off students.
  • I would subsidize more generously adult education.
  • I would not subsidize Harvard or Princeton at all. Their endowments should be taxed and the income used to pay for better community colleges.

So you would think that activists on the left would have this agenda already. If you are going to “Occupy Wall Street”, you should certainly be concerned that Harvard’s $35 billion endowment is allowed to profit tax-free, and that the benefits go mostly to the elite. Why is there no call to redistribute these endowments?

Let us look at the intellectuals on the left. We have David Graeber, who helped spur the Occupy Wall Street movement. Graeber was a professor at Yale and is now a professor at the London School of Economics. Both schools that received students from well-off families and hand degree to people who are going to join the top 1%. At the London School of Economics, we also find Thomas Piketty, who became famous for his socialist treaty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. It is interesting that these intellectuals do not choose to work for schools where blue-collar workers are likely to send their children. They are nowhere to be seen at community colleges or vocational schools. How likely is it that Graeber and Piketty would be eager to teach at a community college or at an adult-education school?

It is not just the USA and England. In Canada, the most elite schools, the less likely to cater to children who have minimum-wage parents, also receive the best government funding.

So the idea that subsidized colleges are a force of equality is flat out wrong. At best, they do well by the middle class. Let us at least be honest about it.

Daniel Lemire, "College and inequality," in Daniel Lemire's blog, March 7, 2017.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

9 thoughts on “College and inequality”

  1. Socialism is attractive to empathetic people. Intelligence does not seem to factor into it (there are very smart people at both political extremes).

    My own view is that further education needs to be delivered in smaller, more specific chunks, available at any time over people’s entire lives. What we have now is a kind of “finishing school” for the middle and upper classes, teaching 70-90% stuff that they will never ever use again.

  2. Here’s the Duolingo founder Luis von Ahn (who’s from Guatemala) expressing a similar sentiment as Daniel about education and inequality, and doing something to actually address this problem (unlike the leftists):

    I’m not sure about subsidising community colleges. Bryan Caplan talked about how the kind of people who don’t finish a 4-year college are also likely the people who don’t finish a 2-year college. (Most of the benefit of colleges comes from finishing, not attending.)

  3. You prepare the entire story to frame these guys as wrong? Because they do not decide to teach at the worse colleges and do not touch on the issue that you decided to discuss here?

    You’d do them more justice by evaluating their words and what they advocate. Strangely, you admit yourself that you are “not concerned about inequality”. So you attack them on the basis that they care about inequality, and take action to improve the situation. It is just not the action you recommend here.

    What do the left advocate? How are they fighting the inequality? Don’t they already recommend investing more into schools in general? How are their points standing against yours?

    Whereas I enjoyed the information provided here, but it reads this way: “if you (left) cared, you’d do this rather than what you are doing, whatever it is you are doing”.

    1. You prepare the entire story to frame these guys as wrong?


      Because they do not decide to teach at the worse colleges (…)

      So a college catering to poorer people is a “worse college”?

      I don’t personally believe that elite institutions are intrinsically better.

      Don’t they already recommend investing more into schools in general? How are their points standing against yours?

      Do they recommend that vocational schools and community colleges receive better funding than elite schools (like the ones they spent their lives in)? I don’t think so. Yet if they were genuinely trying to achieve a more egalitarian society, I submit to you that it is what they would do.

      1. So a college catering to poorer people is a “worse college”?

        Do you think that’s an unreasonable assumption?

        I think you’ve cherry picked here. It’d be best to compare your points against theirs. That’s the crucial part.

        Note that you picked the representatives of “the left”. In England, the left actually promotes investing more into schools which are underfunded. The idea of grammar schools being subsidised schools for the upper middle class is a frequently discussed topic. This is despite the fact that they were not supposed to play that role.

        I believe that education should be free for everyone, the way it works in most of EU. I cannot see how anyone would not agree that poor schools should see the right amount of funding. However, you have never said that the people you picked disagree with this statement, rather you made it look that way because they do not actively promote this issue. I think that’s the framing part.

        Not considering the problems that your chosen “left” tries to tackle is a big omission. I bet that wall street problem’s impact on the US public (not just the students) in terms of $ is several orders of magnitudes larger.

        1. The position I defended in my blog post is that free higher-education is not actually egalitarian.

          My argument is simple. To be egalitarian, the subsidies should benefit the people from the lowest quintile more than they benefit people from the top 1%.

          You will find that kids from the top 1% are much, much more likely to attend the London School of Economics than kids from the bottom 20%. Yet the London School of Economics will receive, per student, a much better funding than a random vocational college.

          There are many ways you could achieve an egalitarian goal, but they all imply that elite schools would be funded much less than schools catering to poor people.

          If you followed this logic, of favoring schools catering to the poor, then you might find that working in such a school is actually better than working in an elite school. Elite schools would need to work extra hard, without so much help from the government.

          I don’t need to prove that Graeber and Piketty do not favor vocational schools over elite schools. The fact is that they chose to work at the most elitist schools. If they think that these schools should receive much weaker funding compared to more egalitarian schools, then they have the burden of proof.

          1. I see what you mean, although I am going to stick to the point that your ending moral condemning Graeber and Piketty is not right.

            It’s equivalent to saying that “they work at an elitist college therefore they are not really supporting more egalitarian society”.

            The burden is on them, meaning “they have to show now how they strive to achieve a more egalitarian society”. However, that’s most likely available information that you have not researched.

            One might support the idea of a more egalitarian society without sacrificing one’s career, particularly when it is just not necessary.

  4. Charles Murray covered some similar topics in his book Coming Apart.

    As someone who’s more often than not in sympathy with the goals of the American left, I find myself more and more frustrated with the tactics and arguments associated with that group. I think a big part of that problem (from my perspective) is related to (some) professional and academic leftists completely losing touch with the working class.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may subscribe to this blog by email.