A Book Review–Degrees of Inequality:  How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream


As great a nation as the United States is it can certainly be a land of contradictions. Capitalism is an economic system that expects that there will be winners and losers. The American educational system, particularly the K-12 system, emphasizes that each student should have an extended opportunity to succeed. It is debatable how definitive either of these American values is when observed in practice with firms too big to fail and poorly funded urban public schools. Regardless, as the United States transitions from a young, relatively homogeneous and simple society to a diverse and complex nation weighted down by the many decisions made by those that came before us, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to address the important issues of our time. Culture has a way of layering upon itself with each new incarnation. And with each layer it becomes harder to find a new direction or even correct course based on current circumstances. Such is the case with the American political system. Laws are passed that were appropriate for an earlier time but as the world changes the solutions that worked fifty years ago are no longer sufficient. The purpose of this post is to provide an overview of the book Degrees of Inequality: How The Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged The American Dream, provide an evaluation of the book and offer professional reflections on the topic. The author, Suzanne Mettler, provides a recounting and analysis of the major political moments in American higher education history and how, especially over the last twenty years, these decisions have resulted in the unfair treatment of many in the United States and how it is likely to have negative outcomes for the entire country over the long-term unless changes are made.


At the beginning of her book, Degrees of Inequality, Suzanne Mettler provides a recounting of the many political accomplishments that have resulted in the United States becoming the world leader in higher education. The Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 are important for several reasons. Among them are these acts provided support for higher education from the federal level and required the institutions established in this manner to integrate the classical liberal arts tradition of instruction to be combined with education and training in practical areas such as agricultural and natural sciences. The second Morrill Act is significant for increased access to higher education as a result of the establishment of historically black colleges and universities. Following World War II the federal government passed legislation-expanding access to colleges and universities for returning veterans. The G.I. Bill made attending university affordable for a significantly larger percentage of the American population. In 1958 student aid programs were extended to civilian students and the first student loan programs were introduced. Building upon previous legislation, the Higher Education Act of 1965 expanded student loan, grant and work study programs. Pell grants were introduced in 1972 at a time when women were provided greater access to higher education. These initiatives were the foundation for building the world’s strongest higher education system. Higher education was seen as a public good stimulating upward social mobility and increasing civic engagement.

During the 1980’s and early 1990’s, political philosophies changed. The bipartisanship that had supported educational initiatives for the previous one hundred plus years had deteriorated significantly. With conservative views gaining popularity during the 1980’s and the election of Ronald Regan as president, education came to be viewed more as a private benefit for individuals and less of a public benefit for society. As a result, the number of low and moderate-income students attending college or university was no longer increasing. In the past several decades’ children were more likely to graduate from college than their parents. In the 1980’s the likelihood of a low-income child graduating from college was only a minimally higher than their parents. The 1980’s and 1990’s were a time of widening economic inequality. College degrees were becoming much more important in signaling a person’s chances of gaining employment and making a middle- to upper-income salary. Higher education had become more a vehicle to ensure the status quo than a vehicle providing opportunities for all Americans striving for something better. The primary culprit of diminishing access to higher education has been quickly escalating tuition costs. Be it the competition between private institutions to attract affluent full paying students or diminishing state funding at public institutions there are myriad of reasons for the increases seen in college tuition. Increases in tuition without the associated increases to student aid programs have resulted in fewer opportunities for low and moderate incomes students.

Although tuition increases resulting in less access to low and moderate-income students can easily be attributable to private college competition and less funding for state institutions, Mettler states that is only part of the equation. Mettler lays a significant portion of the blame for the declining access to higher education at the feet of a dysfunctional, partisan American government. She describes the situation by introducing the term policyscape. Policyscape is a term used to describe a situation where a myriad of political decisions were made in the past but are no longer germane to the current realities.  When policies are not updated polices can morph in ways that undermine the initial intentions of the policy initiative and may no longer achieve the intended goals of the legislation. For example, for-profit educational enterprises have leveraged existing student aid laws to their advantage. Today approximate 25% of all student aid is directed to for-profit institutions. For-profit student outcomes are not comparable to those of traditional public and private non-profits colleges and universities. Student retention and graduation rates as well as employment outcomes are much better at traditional institutions as compared to for-profit institutions. In addition, students attending for-profit institutions typically leave the institution, with or without a degree, with high levels of debt. Lawmakers need to make these updates to existing laws and generate new legislation that addresses current needs.

Mettler makes several recommendations to improve the current reality of higher education in the United States and reinstate its upward trajectory. First, overhaul federal student financial aid by reducing the amount of aid that can be used by for-profit institutions. Strengthen the support of community colleges as they have served many of the same types of students now served by for-profit institutions for much less, reducing the expected financial burden of students. Reinstitute the historic partnership of federal and state government and their support of higher education. Eliminate ineffective student aid programs, such as tuition tax breaks, that are most beneficial to students from affluent families. Unfortunately, the United States’ government has dissolved, over the last two decades, into a very partisan and plutocratic form of government. As a result, making political changes that will benefit the less advantaged will be very difficult going forward. To affect political change Mettler recommends reverting the congressional filibuster rule to a simple majority sustained by the minority, limit the advantage of the wealthy by implementing laws that forbid campaign lobbyist and their organizations to make campaign contributions, increase the required time between congressional jobs and lobbying positions and bolster the participation and influence of the ordinary American.


Suzanne Mettler is the Clinton Rossiter Professor of American Institutions at Cornell University located in the Department of Government. She received her bachelor’s degree from Boston College, a master’s degree from the University of Illinoi-Urbana, and a doctorate from Cornell. Before returning to Cornell in 2007 she had been a political science professor at Syracuse University for thirteen years eventually rising to the level of distinguished professor. Her research has focused on American politics, political behavior and civic engagement, inequality and public policy including welfare, taxes and health and educational policy. She has been successful in securing research funding from organization such as the Russell Sage Foundation, the Spencer Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. In fact, the Spencer Foundation supported the research found in this book. She has written or edited several books, in addition to Degrees of Inequality, that examine the how public policy and inequality intersect including, The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy and Remaking America: Democracy and Public Policy in an Age of Inequality. Two of Mettler’s books have been recognized multiple times by the American Political Science Association. They are Soldiers to Citizens: The G.I. Bill and the Making of the Greatest Generation and Dividing Citizens: Gender and Federalism in New Deal Public Policy.

Not much is mentioned in the book regarding the research methods employed by Mettler to complete the book. It appears Mettler researched the book in multiple ways. In the acknowledgements section at the end of the book Mettler describes researching and writing the book over the course of an eight-year period. In addition to an extensive literature review that was assisted by graduate students from both Syracuse University and Cornell University, Mettler interviewed a number of people from differing perspectives vis-à-vis higher education and public policy. Mettler mentions she interviewed thirty-one individuals. She does not name the individuals as it is assumed she felt she would receive more honest evaluations on the topic through anonymous interviews. Those interviewed came from several areas within government, higher education and associated organizations. Congressional staffers, U.S. Department of Education employees, lobbyist and higher education advocates included.

Mettler’s book, at times, delves deeply into how policy decisions, particularly at the federal level, are made. She did this through an extensive literature review, an evaluation of applicable legislations and a series of interviews with stakeholders in the federal government, higher education and associated industries. For a project of this magnitude, on a topic this expansive, relying upon interviews with thirty-one individuals as the primary form of data collection seems to be lacking. This opinion may be a result of differing academic discipline expectations. More explanation of the types of research reviewed would have been appreciated.

Mettler makes several recommendations to increase access of low- and middle-income individuals to colleges and universities in the United States. In the United States identifying the solution to a problem is not necessarily the most difficult part of the equation. The difficult part of the equation is typically how to build political consensus and pass legislation that actually addresses the problem and not caters to the wealthy and powerful. Mettler identifies this and partisanship as significant problems, yet, I wonder how realistic are the political recommendations made by Mettler. The first suggestion is to return to filibuster rules in congress that required a simple majority and required the minority to sustain the filibuster instead of requiring a supermajority. How likely is it that the party in power will relinquish this advantage in a time of highly partisan politics? In my view, it is very unlikely without a very unexpected magnanimous gesture.   The same could be said for the idea of reducing the influence of the wealthy on the legislative process by significantly changing campaign finance laws. In order to change these laws incumbent legislators will have to vote for a bill that will likely be counter to their benefit. Incumbent lawmakers will be very unlikely to pass campaign finance reform unless there is significant ground swell of support from a large percentage of the American population that outweighs the benefits of the current campaign finance system. Again, either scenario is unlikely for the United State Congress. For all of the research and political insight of the author better recommendations or at least more detailed explanations of the probabilities of the success of the recommendations was expected.


The book, Degrees of Inequality, certainly has a significant impact on the issues I have struggled with over the course of the last several years. In my role as a university career services leader, I have found that career services often becomes the nexus for conversations about the return on investment of higher education. Focusing on career outcomes and return on investment in higher education can be expedient and politically beneficial to some but it is not necessarily the most useful conversation with regards to the benefits of students. The benefits of a college or university degree should not be distilled down to the mere fact that a graduate found a job, or not. In an effort to change the discussion from simply employment outcomes Purdue University and the Gallup organization have partnered to develop the Gallup-Purdue Index suggesting that college is and should be more. The Index is said to measure the well being of graduates and how engaged they are with their work. Currently, the University Career Center staff and I are working on a project to change the conversation as well. The project is the development of an Employability Curriculum. The Employability Curriculum is intended to guide students in recognizing the many benefits of a broad education and learning how to leverage depth of learning in the application to professional endeavors.

Although there have been many who have attempted to broaden the value of higher education the reality is that powerful political leaders are inclined to keep the discussion as simple as possible regardless of how it addresses the problem at hand, or not. One such political effort is “The Student Right to Know Before Your Go Act” proposed by Senator Ron Wyden. The act would require colleges and universities to collect and publish a prescribed set of data including employment data. As described in the book, How College Works by Chambliss and Takacs, the data noted may or may not be useful to students and it seems decision-making is often based on factors beyond solving the problem at hand.

A similar initiative was put forth during the 2013 State of the Union address when President Obama introduced the College Scorecard. The expectation of this initiative is multifaceted but directly affects career services in one important way. Career services at colleges and universities have traditionally collected employment data on recent graduates, if the institution collects data at all. One section of the College Scorecard points toward employment outcomes. This is the only section of the College Scorecard that does not have data provided by the federal government. Visitors to the website are instructed to request employment data from each individual institution. Comparing institutions based on employment data is a tricky endeavor. There is no required standard way of collecting and reporting graduate employment data. Over the course of the last year and one-half the National Association of Colleges and Employers have developed guidelines that institutions can use to collect and report employment data. Although these guidelines will help institutions collect better data the guidelines are not required. This continues to result in the difficulties of comparing institutions based on reported employment outcomes. For example, when comparing employment data from different institutions, colleges and universities can choose to report the data in many different ways. Some institutions will report employment rates for only those that respond to a post-graduate employment survey. This can result in a small number of respondents reporting being employed while a large percentage of overall population may be unemployed. This can puts institutions that calculate differently at a disadvantage.   The best employment data is available from state government unemployment insurance and wage record data. The University of Texas system has developed a process for collecting this data and providing the data in the form of a searchable online database. Currently the major drawback of this system is that it only has data for graduates that remained in the state following graduation. Efforts have been made to connect these state databases in order to get a comprehensive view but to this point these efforts have been unsuccessful because of the varying technologies employed by each state.

Although Mettler focuses on the political shortcomings of the federal system vis-à-vis higher education from a funding standpoint it would be worth discussing other aspects of the American higher education system as well. One of the strengths of higher education has been its independence, particularly with regard to academic freedom, but it may be advantageous to many students to discuss ways to assist prospective students in finding the right educational next step. It may be that as many students that undervalue their ability that there are as many that overvalue their ability and are placed in a position to fail. Finding ways to balance opportunity and fit could have a significant positive influence on the American higher education system.


Mettler’s book, Degrees of Inequality, does a good job of providing an overview of the legislation that has been the most influential to the higher education enterprise over the course of last 150 years. The first 120 years demonstrate the undeniable successes that made the higher education system in the United States the best in the world. The last 30 years show how a change in philosophy and political practice that has diminished the educational system in the United States and foretells of an undesirable future unless significant changes are made. Although the book focuses on the macro view of federal government similar issues can be identified on college and university campuses across the country where political struggles limited the ability to find solutions to problems. It could also be said this book uses higher education legislation as a case study of much broader societal problems that must be faced by the United States. As the United States becomes a more heterogeneous society how are we to leverage the values that helped build a successful country in such a way that will encourage collaboration and equality in the future? Partisanship and the overwhelming influence of the wealthy is not just an issue for higher education. These issues must be addressed or many important areas across the American landscape will decay and put the entire country in a precarious position.


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