by Kayla Dwyer
Originally published: April 27, 2017
The story of higher education in the United States is one of rapid rise and steady fall, with the only unchanging variable being the persistence of class inequality.
Even with the explosion in college attendance post–World War II — aided in part by the GI Bill of Rights, which granted veterans benefits that included tuition payments — access for low-income students has been consistently low while significant ground was gained in gender and ethnic diversity. Americans began to think of higher education as a public good in this period, and government funding followed suit. But the rapid expansion quickly outpaced fiscal support, and the public’s optimism toward opportunity waned. The shifting of the financial burden to families has systematically excluded those from the bottom quartile of income.
Sociologists theorize about why this might have happened. Sigal Alon in the American Sociological Review points to a mechanism called social closure, in which social groups seek to reap certain benefits or keep their privileges by controlling access to them, thereby excluding others. Some exclusionary methods include property barriers, such as rising tuition costs, and the “inflated use of academic qualifications” or standardized tests like the SAT.