Once upon a time, higher education was small. Really small. Only a very few people could enter it, and the value of a degree was enormous. Not just in terms of skills/knowledge acquired, or the credential, but also social status. If you’re a fan of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, just look at the leap in social status and life chances that Elena experiences when she makes it to the Scuola Normale in Pisa (which, by the way, I’ve not quite figured out – why didn’t her teachers route her to the Università degli Studi di Napoli?). It alters her life in ways far beyond what university access does today.
Now at some point – the exact timing varies by country – governments decided that higher education needed to “massify”. Partly, this was to meet the needs of an increasingly knowledge-based economy, and the services that go with it (better health care and education), but in part it was also to “democratize” higher education, and make it less exclusive.
And that’s where things get tricky. Massification can widen access to knowledge, skills and credentials. But it cannot widen access to status. Status is a game of “who are the cool kids” where membership must, by definition, be exclusive. Government policy cannot make the cool kids let people into to club. If it tries, the cool kids will change the rules of the game (read Andrew Potter & Joseph Heath’s The Rebel Sell for more on this).
Two things happens in virtually every country where massification occurs. The first is a concomitant increase in graduate education. Partly, that can be justified in the same terms as the expansion of undergraduate education – producing more specialists, more people able to teach others, etc. But often it’s simply an arms race. You have a degree? Bully for you – I have two.
The second is stratification within higher education. As governments (or non-profit private institutions in some countries) expanded the number of institutions to meet rising demand, institutions didn’t all obtain the same level of prestige. So another way the “cool kids” game plays out is that you start to see an increasing concentration of prestige at a very few schools: Todai & Kyoto in Japan; Peking, Tsinghua and Fudan in China; Harvard, MIT and Stanford in the US. It’s now no longer if you go, it’s where you go (if you want any nauseating details on that from the US, I highly recommend Lauren Rivera’s Pedigree). You’d better believe that rich parents then do what they can to make sure it’s their kid and not someone else’s who makes into those institutions.
In Canada, we don’t see this quite as much as in other countries because of a peculiarity of our higher ed system. We don’t have national exams, and we don’t use SATs, which reduces some of the push towards exclusivity. We also are peculiar in the sense that our top institutions are simply gargantuan. The top three institutions in the US accept maybe 0.1% of the incoming undergraduate class; the top three institutions in Canada accept about 10% of the incoming undergraduate population (thanks to Joe Heath and his In Due Course blog for this observation). It simply isn’t as special to be at a top institution. But it’s worth remembering what an outlier that makes us on the international field.
In much of the developed world what we worry about is not so much access to college or undergraduate studies; we’ve more or less got that under control though obviously there’s room for improvement. Now we’re starting to fixate on where people go: are we creating one group of (mainly rich) students going to elite, prestigious universities and another group of (mainly poorer) students going to less elite schools?
Ensuring every student goes to an equally prestigious school is an impossible task. Government can increase access to education, skills and knowledge; it cannot increase access to prestige. Prestige, like “cool,” is a fixed-sum thing: you have it in part to the extent that I do not. If that weren’t true, then your mom could be cool, for God’s sake. And as long as access to these top schools is “merit-based” and “merit” is defined as good grades, it’s difficult to imagine ways to stop wealthier families from monopolizing positions in these schools because they are better able to pass on various academic advantages to their children. As John Rawls said, it’s only ever possible to deal with inequality imperfectly, as long as families exist.
(There actually was one government that tried to deal with this head on. The military government of Chun-Doo Hwan in South Korea shut down the Hagwons (cram schools) in order to try to make the university entrance system fairer to poorer students. This tactic did not survive the country’s transition to democracy.)
There is a partial answer to this problem, and that is lotteries. Instead of allowing the minimum admissions criteria to be bid up in a competitive manner (e.g only the top 30 applicants get a place), set a minimum threshold which maybe 200 students could meet, and distribute the places by lottery. The Dutch do this for limited-enrolment programs and it seems to work out alright. It’s difficult to imagine Harvard doing it, but one can dream. Because it’s hard to imagine making a serious dent in stratification without more radical measures than the ones we’re currently using.