Quality in postsecondary education is both increasing and increasingly unequal, a negative side effect of market forces. Since 1973, the pool of applicants to postsecondary institutions has nearly doubled along with the wage premium; as a result, institutions have become increasingly selective.
According to the financial newsmagazine Barron’s, between 1994 and 2009 the number of institutions rated “very competitive” or higher jumped from 399 to 472.
Meanwhile, the number of “less-” and “noncompetitive” four-year colleges declined from 429 to 299, and the share of students attending community colleges and other subbaccalaureate institutions is approaching 40 percent of total enrollment in Title IV-eligible institutions. Thus the postsecondary system increasingly resembles a dual system of quality, which mirrors the parallel polarization of white students and those from affluent families at the top and a concentration of African-Americans, Hispanics, and students from disadvantaged families at the bottom.
That polarization of quality has a persistent effect on educational and career opportunities. Those in the upper half of the dual-quality system enjoy higher spending per student, pay a smaller share of total costs, get the most general preparation, and follow the professional track to high earnings and personal empowerment. Those in the bottom half are tracked into more-specific occupational training that qualifies them for good but less-secure mid-level jobs in rank-and-file professions.
In response to this growing problem, if we cannot move large numbers of less-advantaged students into quality programs at selective colleges, then educators and policy makers should consider moving quality programs, and the money they require, to institutions where the least-advantaged Americans enroll.
Anthony P. Carnevale is director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.