The Inequality Machine

Buck Goldstein
Entrepreneur in Residence and Professor of the Practice UNC-Chapel Hill

Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn, the Pulitzer Prize-winning authors of Half the Sky, share the untold story of rural America in their new book, Tightrope: Americans Reaching for New Hope. Kristoff and WuDunn refer to the American higher education system as “an inequality machine,” before they go on to say: 

College entrance may be based on metrics that seem meritocratic, like board scores and grades, but consider that 77% of kids in the top quartile of incomes graduate from college, compared to 9% of kids in the bottom quartile. This matters hugely for life outcomes and social mobility: a college degree on average is worth an additional $800,000 in lifetime earnings. 

For those of you who are higher education insiders, this is no surprise. For those who find this shocking, welcome to the reality of American higher education. Historical context and hard data are often in short supply when analyzing this problem and others like it. The result is a conversation long on politics and short on analytics. I love the term Inequality Machine as a way of elevating the public consciousness of college access and completion issues. However, it is worth considering what we know and what we still need to know before addressing the challenges the term suggests.

Arguably, higher education has been an Inequality Machine since the founding of the first university in Bologna, Italy in 1088. The students hired and fired their own professors, meaning only those who could afford to pay for professors could become students. Harvard University was granted its charter and tax-exempt status 400 years later, with the mission of providing a learned-ministry to the colonies. 

The tax-exempt status created the fundamental template for US Higher Education: government support in exchange for educating the elite. Subsequent expansion of government support through the creation of land grant universities and the GI Bill (1944) expanded access to higher education. With the advent of the Pell Grant in 1965, government aid was explicitly targeted to reduce inequality. For a variety of reasons, including a rapid rise in the cost of attendance, reduction in government support, and the changing demographics of the pool of college-age students, Pell Grants alone will no longer get the job done.

If Pell Grants do not solve the Inequality Machine, how can we proceed? I suggest considering the contours of a research agenda that will inform decision-makers. What do we need to know, that we don’t already know, that would help schools address The Inequality Machine? I’m curious about the following:

  1. Will test-optional or no test admissions policies increase application numbers and ultimately admissions from students in the bottom quartile of incomes or will the policy merely increase opportunities for affluent parents to game the system? There is conflicting data on this question, but related experiments are beginning across the country. Northern Michigan University just abolished the use of testing in admissions and financial aid while the State of California considers a test-optional policy.

  2. Will substantial reductions in the cost of college, or even transitioning to a free college program, increase applications and graduation rates? All but the most selective institutions are cutting prices in order to attract students. Early results from three colleges in North Carolina that cut tuition to $1,000 a year for in-state students and $5,000 for out-of-state students are promising. One administrator described the impact as “like a booster rocket”. More hard data on the impact of low or no tuition is critical to the national conversation on the subject.

  3. Is going to the “best” college you can get into the right choice for all students?  This has been the conventional wisdom for years; the scores of books and articles on the college admissions process seem to take this as an established fact. Some scholars are pushing back, however, with Jennifer Morton leading the charge in Moving Up Without Losing your Way. Morton’s interviews with first-generation college students suggest that the immeasurable costs to identity, family, and community may outweigh the benefits of going to an elite school. We need to learn more.

  4. Do improvements in campus climate and classroom instruction result in an increased success rate for underrepresented students? Visionary work on inclusive teaching is being done by such professors as Kelly Hogan and Viji Sathy. Almost all campuses are attempting to adapt to a changing student demographic, but we are far from fully understanding the effectiveness of these efforts.

What else do we need to know to address the Inequality Machine? Let me know what you think. My colleagues and I at UNC-Chapel Hill are in the midst of developing a research agenda, and we want to include these issues in our thinking. 


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