Review of Degrees of Inequality (2014)
Mettler, S. (2014). Degrees of inequality: How the politics of higher education sabotaged the American dream. Philadephia: Perseus Books. ISBN: 978-0-465-04496-2
Suzanne Mettler’s book Degrees of Inequality is sub-titled, “How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream.” What is most satisfying about this text is its focus on the often mysterious how; politicians and media talking heads are constantly speculating on the why behind political actions, but the intricate mechanisms of how are often unknown or simply ignored as unimportant. The picture that slowly develops as Mettler’s tome builds towards its crescendo – the housing market crash and the window of opportunity it permits for reform (roughly, 2007-2011) – is a dark one, dominated by a trinity of villains: untended policy, political polarization, and plutocracy. And while the author provides ample evidence of both how higher education is still an essential part of the American Dream and that the “sabotage” of that dream has been conducted primarily by our elected representatives, what she does not offer in ample supply are solutions. Thus, this reader is left with the feeling that his worst fears have been confirmed: yes, there are monsters in the basement; and no, there is no way to kill them.
Mettler elaborates on a thesis that few of us involved in higher education administration would disagree with; that is, that partisan politics, not a dearth of good ideas or reform initiatives, have undermined the progress and promise of post-WW II higher education reforms like the GI Bill and the Higher Education Act of 1965. According to Mettler, political polarization, especially since 1994, has led to an unwillingness in both parties to participate in basic policy maintenance, allowing effective policies to “drift” into ineffectiveness (e.g. student aid that has failed to keep up with rising tuition costs), and for unintended consequences (e.g. growth of for-profit colleges), policy design flaws (e.g. Pell Grants have no cost-of-living adjustments), and the effects of other, unrelated policies (e.g. the rising costs of K-12, prisons, and Medicare in the states) to re-shape what Mettler refers to as the “policyscape” and, sometimes, work against their intended purposes.
The author contends, rather effectively, that partisan rancor has resulted in a virtual plutocracy — a government by, and for, the wealthy — and in a higher education system that clearly privileges the already privileged. Equal access does not mean equal success, and Mettler demonstrates that this is even truer today than it was 40 years ago, as gains in retention and graduation rates among students from middle and low income families have not kept pace with those experienced by students in the top quartile of family income; among some groups of students, including African-American and Hispanic college students in the lower two quartiles, retention and graduation rates are actually lower than they were decades ago.
While Mettler’s book closes on a note of hope, speculating on how the “reform window” that existed in 2007-2011 might lead to eventual opportunities for greater reform, the overwhelming message of this book is that, while the U.S. needs more college graduates than ever before to remain a global economic and political power, the political gridlock of partisanship has made LBJ’s dream of Americans having access to “all the education they can take” a still-distant goal.
I selected this book because I felt that the author’s views were likely similar to my own regarding how the many inequalities inherent in our current higher education system have been created, and exacerbated, by the influence of moneyed interests, thoughtless political expediency, and bitter partisanship. While Mettler’s book isn’t revalatory in terms of content, the author does go into a satisfying degree of depth regarding the causal factors in this scenario; in addition, Mettler provides analysis of empirical data, such as state spending trends, matriculation and graduation rates, and income differentials, that strengthen her arguments in some illuminating ways.
For instance, I was unaware of spending mandates in K-12, prisons, and Medicare that help to “squeeze” higher education funding on the state level. I was also ignorant regarding the fact that tax deductions related to higher education are a drain on direct aid like Pell Grants, as well as an example of a policy that promotes inequality, as it strongly favors families with incomes between $100,000 and $200,000 per year who have sufficient income to take advantage of the deductions. While I knew that default rates on federally-backed loans for students at for-profit colleges were higher than those for students at public and non-profit privates, I was unaware of the complex web of support, complicity, and opportunism that included elements of both parties and existed to ensure continued federal support of for-profits in Congress.
All things considered, the elements of Mettler’s book and argument that are likely to stick with me are the many voices she used to connect the idea of the “American Dream” to higher education. At various times she quotes or references founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, and no portion of this book is more powerful than the introduction to Chapter Two, where the author invokes the words of President Lyndon Johnson on the occasion of signing the Higher Education Act of 1965 into law. Speaking to those gathered to watch the signing at Southwest Texas State College, his alma mater, Johnson stated:
And when you look into the faces of your students and your children and your grandchildren, tell them that you were there when it began. Tell them that a promise has been made to them. Tell them that the leadership of your country believes it is the obligation of your Nation to provide and permit and assist every child born in these borders to receive all the education that he can take. (as cited in Mettler, 2014, p. 51)
What I found the most frustrating regarding Mettler’s book was that, beyond opportunities available in response to economic crises and a call for strong individual leadership (as exemplified in the text by politicians like President Johnson and, more recently, Jim Webb), the author offers no clear solution to the “fine mess’ we’ve gotten ourselves into. While access to higher education has increased, the advantages gained by the completion of a college education are still not available for those in the greatest need of those advantages: minorities, the poor, and working class adults. The only changes that could provide a meaningful window for higher education reform are those that are tremendous in scale: campaign finance reforms, electoral reforms, procedural reforms in the Senate and House. As the author points out, the United States has never lacked for “innovative ways to promote higher education so that it would serve crucial and ambitious public purposes” (p. 200). Innovation, however, requires the oxygen of opportunity in order to thrive, and the “policyscape” Mettler describes is an airless one.