Higher Education and Inequality: What Can We Really Do?

How can postsecondary education reduce inequality in economic and social mobility on the basis of socioeconomic status?

This award supports the development of a research volume, authored by Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson, which will synthesize relevant literature to describe the issues facing higher education, draw connections between higher education and other social institutions that may serve to reinforce inequality, and present a series of policy proposals to enable institutions of higher education to offer more opportunities for economic and social mobility. Baum and McPherson will describe the socioeconomic inequality in postsecondary participation and outcomes by examining longitudinal data from the NCES, National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, and the Equality of Opportunity Project. Baum and McPherson will also review recent literature in order to respond to critiques of higher education as exacerbating existing inequalities, broadening from a focus on socioeconomic diversity at highly selective colleges to also include for-profit and two-year colleges. Additionally, the volume will identify how strategies for reducing inequality can benefit middle-class youth. The authors plan to critically analyze the body of evidence signaling that labor market structures and political institutions shape how levels of degree attainment translate into differences in economic outcomes, with particular attention to the implications for policy. The book will conclude with a series of policy analyses, in which Baum and McPherson critique what they see as unrealistic approaches to reducing inequality, and offer cost-benefit analyses to support specific policy solutions, particularly where efforts can be focused to improve outcomes among students who would otherwise be unlikely to graduate and reap long-term social and economic benefits.