Americans often view inequality through the lenses of race and ethnicity, but in higher education, the more profound difference is often related to economic class, as new research by Ann L. Mullen, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto wonderfully illustrates.
Mullen examines two four-year colleges located within two miles of one another: Yale University and Southern Connecticut State University. In racial terms, the two institutions are not all that different. Yale is 69 percent white, while Southern is 70 percent white. But as Mullen finds in interviews with 50 Yale students and 50 Southern students, the class divide is significant, and that difference has enormous implications for the attitudes, experiences, and expectations of students.
Mullen’s insightful new book, Degrees of Inequality, notes that Southern students tend to be the sons and daughters of “shopkeepers, secretaries, teachers, and construction workers,” about half of whom never completed college. By contrast, about 80 percent of Yale students sampled had parents with BA’s, two-thirds had some form of graduate education, and more than half came from the top 15 percent by income nationally. These students often “arrived on the back of tremendous childhood advantages.”
Among the advantages, she writes, were high parental expectations. In interviews, she writes, it was clear that most Yale students “never actually decided to go to college; it was simply the next step in their lives, one not requiring a rationale.” Although less than one percent of four- year college students attend Ivy League institutions, for some Yale students interviewed, “it was a question of which one.” She writes, “It is not simply that they aspired to attend the most elite institutions; rather, they planned on it.
Southern students, by contrast, made a conscious decision to pursue higher education and then mostly chose Southern based on “cost and convenience.” Neither factor was mentioned by a single Yale student. Over 90 percent of Yale students were from out of state, while over 90 percent of Southern students came from in-state. The Southern students never thought of applying to Yale, and the Yale students have never even heard of Southern.
The differences in opportunities and outlooks of Yale and Southern are then amplified once they reach college, Mullen finds. Yale, founded 300 years ago, has a $15-billion endowment “about two thousand times greater” than the endowment of Southern, which became a four-year institution in 1937 and became part of the Connecticut State University system in 1983.
The economic chasm between the schools and their students also drives profound differences in the experiences at each institution. To save money, only about one-third of Southern students live on campus and only 24 percent participate in extracurriculars, as many have to work 20-30 hours a week. By contrast, almost all students at Yale live on campus, and 67 percent participate in extracurriculars, from playing tennis to singing a capella.
Asked what they value most about college, Yale students tended to mention learning from friends and peers and participating in extracurricular activities. Southern students were only half as likely as Yale students to mention peers and friends.
Academic pursuits also differ greatly. Deciding on a college major is usually portrayed as a matter of individual choice, Mullen notes, but economic constraints are strongly felt. “For the Southern students,” she says, “majors represented not bodies of knowledge or academic disciplines, but rather occupational fields.” By contrast, Yale students were “quite cognizant” that their Ivy League degrees made the field of study chosen less important. One student told Mullen, “I’m getting a diploma with four letters Y-A-L-E on it. I should be able to have the sky be my limit.” The humanities may be seen as “a cocktail conversation major,” Mullen writes, but in fact, the liberal arts are designed to produce leaders in society, and many Yale students took advantage of this fact.
Within Yale, however, first generation college students were more practical in their selection of a college major, Mullen found. Gender differences also arose, with Yale women less focused on career, and Yale men more focused on choosing a prestigious major.
Finally, Mullen’s interviews detected differences in broader career ambitions among students. Yale students tended to think on a grand scale. One student saw himself “as making a huge impact somehow on this planet.” Southern students were more likely to be looking for gainful employment. These differences were inculcated by the schools. Yale said it prepares students to “lead and serve in every sphere of human activity,” while Southern aimed to meet the “workforce needs of the state’s economy.”
Mullen’s book reminds us that in the current national debates over how to increase access to college and boost graduation rates, it is important to also consider access to what, and graduation from where. She notes: “Social background has become less important for predicting college attendance, but more important for the type of college or university one attends.” In the larger scheme of things, student who graduate from four-year institutions—whether Southern or Yale—are in a relatively elite group, but there are profound differences in experiences that cannot be ignored, which is why rising socioeconomic stratification matters. Degrees of Inequality paints a vivid and disturbing picture of the growing class divide in American higher education.