Higher education is often seen as an answer to inequality, but is that really the case?
Think of the contrast between highly selective and non-selective institutions of higher ed as recently presented by Caroline Hoxby of Stanford, a specialist in the economics of higher education. In terms of the knowledge of the teachers, the cutting edge curriculum, admission standards, peer interactions, peer learning, the amount of resources provided to students, the monetary resources spent, the endowments that allow such spending or the opportunities available within alumni networks; students at Stanford (and most other highly selective universities) have much more privilege than students at any high quality but non-selective institution; and furthermore, these resources are significant for student’s and alumni’s near-term and lifelong development. The “Stanfords” may attempt to admit a diverse student body, but they are small elite institutions that educate only a small percentage of all students. They’re existence cements the continuance of educational inequality and supports inequality in general society. They may not be the elite finishing schools represented by the traditions of Oxford and Cambridge, but in our current society they still function much the same.
Must we accept the inevitability of inequality in both education and in society at large? Asking Stanford students to forgo their privilege, attempting to provide that level of privilege to all higher ed students or accepting the status quo are all non-starters. I believe we must reconceptualize the meaning and the current paradigm of higher education, extend its lifelong availability and expand the roles education plays in our lives. We will not have equality of resources, we cannot expect equality of outcomes, but we must seek equality in the opportunity for personal development, economic self-actualization, and family and community development.
Why is this worth pursuing? If inequality continues to grow, it is hard to imagine a future that avoids either massive economic destruction or the development of a form of feudalism; substituting secured and gated communities for castles and knights.
In my next post I’ll consider some possible responses but this should be a wide ranging dialogue and source of experiment in the education community.