A commitment to the welfare of broad numbers of Americans is an idea imbedded in democracy and romanticized in the "American Dream." Yet, obsession with protecting a competitive capitalist meritocracy is embraced by many Americans, both rich and poor. This obsession across class was graphically reinforced in the electoral base that supported Donald Trump's election and bid for election in 2020.
While political conservatism celebrates capitalism and the competitive spirit that supposedly supports it, many conservatives are skeptical of higher education. The recent survey of the Association of American Colleges & Universities and Bipartisan Policy Center found that "Seven in 10 Democrats say that a college degree is 'definitely' or 'probably' worth it, compared with only 53 percent of Republicans and 52 percent of independents." The survey results also reflected a sharp division related to the importance of a commitment to social justice, with 45% of Democrats, 28% of Independents, and 19% of Republicans endorsing social justice as part important to long-term career success. This division is an important backdrop to consider in relation to the Gates Foundation's Post-Secondary Value Commission report. The Commission report was "designed to catalyze an equitable value movement, which will help reshape the higher education system in the United States by combating access and completion barriers, sparking economic mobility, dismantling racist practices and structural inequalities, and building a more vibrant and just society." The Commission report raises question of individual, institutional, as well as governmental responsibility for correcting inequities that exist.
The Gates Foundation report is hailed as lifting up the long-held assertion of educators that access, equity, and completion of educational goals has to be a central goal of a democratic society. Why? Because informed and talented citizens pay off in numerous ways - responsible participation, innovation, service, and economic vitality. The cost of inequity is too significant to ignore and the solution isn't only gaining access to higher education but the role it plays in equalizing opportunity. It has long been clear that privileged Americans are taking care of themselves by preserving access and networks through elite higher education. The Gates Foundation seeks to highlight how investment to benefit those without this privilege can be achieved - by "providing stronger academic and wraparound supports - including better academic and career counseling and mental health services; more comprehensive assistance with personal and financial needs, including tuition, childcare, food and housing; and stronger transfer pathways - to ensure that these students can reach their educational goals." Gates Commission members Anthony Carnevale and Kathryn Peltier offer the sobering conclusion that "The chances of earning a college degree and finding a good job in young adulthood are often determined more by a student's family socioeconomic status than by early achievement - for American children, it's better to be rich than smart." This is evident in the unfulfilled promise of commensurate opportunity that many students face, especially those of lower socio-economic means.
When considering policy related to inequity in education, it's important to focus on the breadth of educational opportunity, not just the programs that prepare students for work. The balance between career preparation and life readiness is difficult to strike. Steve Mintz' review of Montas's book, Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation, asserts, "I find it bitterly ironic that many of the staunchest advocates for a faster, cheaper education had, themselves, the benefits of a liberal education. Now, in the name of access, affordability, and credential attainment, too many call for a cheaper, faster, career-focused education, dismissing a liberal education for the masses as a fool's errand."
Adam Harris' book, The State Must Provide: Why America's Colleges Have Always Been Unequal - And How to Set Them Right, asserts that "From its inception, our higher education system was not built on equality or accessibility, but on educating -- and prioritizing -- white students." Drawing conclusions from Harris and other authors, Steve Mintz proposed seven issues that could help explain the failures of higher education in correcting racial disparities and wealth inequality.
”It's abundantly clear that the United States has not created the equitable democracy that offers opportunity to all regardless of background. Abandoning the unsubstantiated assumption of competitive capitalism, without educational opportunity and talent development, appears to be a way forward for all Americans, regardless of socioeconomic status. Advocating for change could, or should, be part of the economic recovery planning that the Biden administration has launched. John Macintosh asserted that the U.S. higher education system, with 125 years of decentralization, allows only incremental change, when "steps to better serve students by exploring things like shared services and infrastructure, joint academic offerings, even mergers or preplanned, well-funded teach-outs" are actually required.
Harper, Culver, & Keazar propose that the process of change and creating more equitable and justice-focused processes of design must be cultivated if higher education institutions are to make progress. The idea is to apply design thinking to problems that colleges and universities face, striving to identify power differentials and inequities that impair the process of decision making that are used while the policies and systems are being critically examined.