The education system today faces many issues and problems of interest not just to educators and families but also to sociologists and other social scientists. We cannot discuss all of these issues here, but we will highlight some of the most interesting and important.
Schools and Inequality
Earlier we mentioned that schools differ greatly in their funding, their conditions, and other aspects. Noted author and education critic Jonathan Kozol refers to these differences as “savage inequalities,” to quote the title of one of his books (Kozol, 1991). Kozol’s concern over inequality in the schools stemmed from his experience as a young teacher in a public elementary school in a Boston inner-city neighborhood in the 1960s. Kozol was shocked to see that his school was literally falling apart. The physical plant was decrepit, with plaster falling off the walls and bathrooms and other facilities substandard. Classes were large, and the school was so overcrowded that Kozol’s fourth-grade class had to meet in an auditorium, which it shared with another class and the school choir.
Jonathan Kozol has written movingly of “savage inequalities” in American schools arising from large differences in their funding and in the condition of their physical facilities. Thomas Hawk – El Paso High School – CC BY-NC 2.0; Nitram242 – Detroit School – CC BY 2.0
During the late 1980s, Kozol (1991) traveled around the country and systematically compared public schools in several cities’ inner-city neighborhoods to those in the cities’ suburbs. Everywhere he went, he found great discrepancies in school spending and in the quality of instruction. In schools in Camden, New Jersey, for example, spending per pupil was less than half the amount spent in the nearby, much wealthier town of Princeton. Chicago and New York City schools spent only about half the amount that some of the schools in nearby suburbs spent.
These numbers were reflected in other differences Kozol found when he visited city and suburban schools. In East St. Louis, Illinois, where most of the residents are poor and almost all are African American, schools had to shut down once because of sewage backups. The high school’s science labs were 30 to 50 years out of date when Kozol visited them; the biology lab had no dissecting kits. A history teacher had 110 students but only 26 textbooks, some of which were missing their first 100 pages. At one of the city’s junior high schools, many window frames lacked any glass, and the hallways were dark because light bulbs were missing or not working. When he visited an urban high school in New Jersey, Kozol found it had no showers for gym students, who had to wait 20 minutes to shoot one basketball because seven classes would use the school’s gym at the same time.
Contrast these schools with those Kozol visited in the suburbs. A high school in a Chicago suburb had seven gyms and an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Students there could take classes in seven foreign languages. A suburban New Jersey high school offered 14 AP courses, fencing, golf, ice hockey, and lacrosse, and the school district there had 10 music teachers and an extensive music program.
From his observations, Kozol concluded that the United States is shortchanging its children in poor rural and urban areas. Poor children start out in life with many strikes against them. The schools they attend compound their problems and help ensure that the American ideal of equal opportunity for all remains just that—an ideal—rather than reality. As Kozol (1991, p. 233) observed, “All our children ought to be allowed a stake in the enormous richness of America. Whether they were born to poor white Appalachians or to wealthy Texans, to poor black people in the Bronx or to rich people in Manhasset or Winnetka, they are all quite wonderful and innocent when they are small. We soil them needlessly.”
Although the book in which Kozol reported these conditions was published almost 30 years ago, ample evidence indicates that little, if anything, has changed in the poor schools of the United States since then, with large funding differences continuing. For instance, in Connecticut, one of the wealthiest states in the country, many poor students attend schools that are among the worst in the nation (Semuels, 2016). Students who attend schools in higher income communities have far greater access to computers, updated textbooks, smaller class sizes, music and art programs, AP classes, tutoring, and the like, due to higher per pupil spending, compared to students attending schools in low income districts. For instance, in 2016, Greenwich, CT spent $6000 more per student than Bridgeport, CT, only 30 miles away, but a world of difference in terms of educational opportunity (Semuels, 2016). Even in states like Michigan, which overhauled the way it funds education in 1993, relying heavily on state sales tax rather than local property taxes, inequality still prevails due to the ability of local communities to supplement state educational funding through increases in property tax millage rates. According to researchers at the Economic Policy Institute, “…children’s social class is one of the most significant predictors—if not the single most significant predictor—of their educational success [and] …it is increasingly apparent that performance gaps by social class take root in the earliest years of children’s lives and fail to narrow in the years that follow” (Garcia and Weiss, 2017).
A related issue to inequality in the schools is school segregation. Before 1954, schools in the South were segregated by law (). Communities and states had laws that dictated which schools’ white children attended and which schools’ African American children attended. Schools were either all white or all African American, and, inevitably, white schools were much better funded than African American schools. Then in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed de jure school segregation in its famous Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, KS decision. In this decision the Court explicitly overturned its earlier, 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which said that public facilities, including schools, could be racially separate but equal. Brown rejected this conclusion as contrary to American egalitarian ideals and as also not supported by empirical evidence, which finds that segregated schools are indeed unequal. Southern school districts fought calls for school desegregation, and de jure school segregation did not really end in the South until the civil rights movement won its major victories a decade later.
This rally at the state capitol in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1959, rose up in protest of the integration of Central High School. Protesters carry US flags and signs reading “Race Mixing is Communism” and “Stop the Race Mixing March of the Anti-Christ”. John T. Bledsoe – Public domain – Wikimedia Commons
Meanwhile, northern schools were also segregated and, in the years since the Brown decision, have become even more segregated. School segregation in the North stemmed, both then and now, not from the law but from neighborhood residential patterns. Because children usually go to schools near their homes, if neighborhoods are racially segregated, then the schools in these neighborhoods will also be segregated. This type of segregation is called .
Presently, students of all races and ethnicities are permitted into schools, but there remains a troubling gap in the equality of education they receive. The long-term socially embedded effects of racism—and other discrimination and disadvantage—have left a residual mark of inequality in the nation’s education system. Students from wealthy families and those of lower socioeconomic status do not receive the same opportunities.
Today’s public schools, at least in theory, are positioned to help remedy those gaps. Predicated on the notion of universal access, this system is mandated to accept and retain all students regardless of race, religion, social class, and the like. Moreover, public schools are held accountable to equitable per-student spending (Resnick 2004). Private schools, usually only accessible to students from high-income families, and schools in more affluent areas generally enjoy access to greater resources and better opportunities. In fact, some of the key predictors for student performance include socioeconomic status and family background. Children from families of lower socioeconomic status often enter school with learning deficits they struggle to overcome throughout their educational tenure. These patterns, uncovered in the landmark Coleman Report of 1966, are still highly relevant today, as sociologists still generally agree that there is a great divide in the performance of white students from affluent backgrounds and their nonwhite, less affluent, counterparts (Coleman 1966).
The findings in the Coleman Report were so powerful that they brought about two major changes to education in the United States. The federal Head Start program, which is still active and successful today, was developed to give low-income students an opportunity to make up the preschool deficit discussed in Coleman’s findings. The program provides academic-centered preschool to students of low socioeconomic status.
During the 1960s and 1970s, states, municipalities, and federal courts tried to reduce de facto segregation by busing urban African American children to suburban white schools and, less often, by busing white suburban children to African American urban schools. Busing inflamed passions as perhaps few other issues during those decades (Lukas, 1985). White parents opposed it because they did not want their children bused to urban schools, where, they feared, the children would receive an inferior education and face risks to their safety. The racial prejudice that many white parents shared heightened their concerns over these issues. African American parents were more likely to see the need for busing, but they, too, wondered about its merits, especially because it was their children who were bused most often and faced racial hostility when they entered formerly all-white schools.
Today many children continue to go to schools that are segregated because of neighborhood residential patterns, a situation that Kozol (2005) calls “apartheid schooling.” In fact, 1988 was the year in which African American students experienced the highest level of school integration. Due to the termination of desegregation plans resulting from a more conservative Supreme Court in the 1990’s, the percentage of intensely segregated non-white schools (in which less than 10% of students are white) has more than tripled (Orfield, et. al., 2016). The states where African American and Latinx American students are most segregated, according to the Civil Rights Project, are New York, Illinois, Maryland, California, New Jersey and Michigan (Orfield, et. al., 2016). Table 13.1 “Percentage of African American Students in 90-100% Non-White Schools (2016-17),” shows the degree of intensely segregated schools in these states.
Table 13.1 Percentage of African American Students in 90-100% Non-White Schools (2016-17)
Percentage of African American Students in Intensely Segregated Non-White Schools
Source: Data from Frankenberg, Erica, et. al. Harming Our Common Future: America’s Segregated Schools 65 Years after Brown, May 10, 2019. https://www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/harming-our-common-future-americas-segregated-schools-65-years-after-brown
Similarly, Latinx students face high degrees of segregation in California, Texas and New York, with well over 50% of Latinx students enrolled in intensely segregated non-white schools (Orfield, et. al., 2016). In addition to racial-ethnic segregation, social class segregation also prevails, resulting in the phenomenon of “double segregation.” From 1993 – 2013, the proportion of poor students in predominantly African American schools has increased from 36.7% to 67.9%. In this same timeframe, for Latinx students, the percentage has increased from 45.6 to 67.9%. Such trends result in isolation from racial-ethnic and social class diversity, and high levels of exposure to problems that afflict poor communities (Orfield, et. al., 2016). According to researchers at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, “intense racial separation and concentrated poverty in schools that offer inferior opportunities fundamentally undermine the American belief that all children deserve an equal educational opportunity…” and school integration is necessary to ensure that all students “…are prepared to understand and live successfully in a society that moves beyond separation toward mutual respect and integration” (Orfield, et. al., 2016).
Think Like a Sociologist
In 2005, an American author by the name of David Foster Wallace gave the commencement speech at Kenyon College during which he famously used a fish and water metaphor. Although he may not be the first to use the metaphor, he certainly made a big splash when he used it (pardon the pun), stating:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’
This metaphor is often used by sociologists and anthropologists to explain how one might be very unaware of their own culture; to contextualize what Peter Berger (recall the Using Your Sociological Imagination exercise from the previous section) called “the familiar.” This is to say, we’re kind of like fish–sometimes we can’t really see the water until we’re out of it. So, it’s with this bit of wisdom that we suggest that sometimes the view of our social environment becomes more focused when we’re outside of it or away from it. In this case, imagine that our social environment is a mosaic made up of tiny tiles. If you’re too close, you can only see one tile; your view is so narrow, you have no idea that it’s a part of a larger picture. So, in order to see the entire picture, you have to move away from it. Keep this in mind as you do the following exercise.
This is an exercise to get you to apply your sociological imagination to your own community in order to put it into context with our larger society. Think back to the community you grew up in. How segregated do you remember it to be? How about the memories you have of your schools? How segregated was your elementary school, middle school, and high school? Did the diversity or segregation of your schools match that of your community?
Now, visit the following website where you will find a dot map of diversity and segregation in the US. Once you’ve navigated to the map, type the location of your community in the search box, and then move around the map finding your community and comparing it to the surrounding area. Groups of people are represented by different colored dots according to their race/ethnicity and are located on the map where they live. So, if you zoom out a bit from the map (back away from the mosaic) a picture of racial/ethnic segregation starts to become visible.
How does segregation or diversity in your community compare to other communities?
How do your memories of your community and schools stack up against the reality the map showed?
Discuss how you may have benefited from, or been hampered by, the level of diversity or segregation in your schools.
To listen to or read David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech to Kenyon College graduates, go to the following site: This is Water by David Foster Wallace.
School Vouchers and School Choice
Another issue involving schools today is school choice. In a school choice program, the government gives parents certificates, or vouchers, that they can use as tuition at private or parochial (religious) schools. In addition, charter schools and magnet schools offer alternative educational settings within the public-school framework. Currently, 86.2% of students in grades 1 – 12 attend traditional public schools, while 4.5% attend public charter schools, 9.5% attend private schools and 3.3% (aged 5 – 17) are homeschooled (Digest of Education Statistics, 2017).
Advocates of school choice programs say they give poor parents an option for high-quality education they otherwise would not be able to afford. These programs, the advocates add, also help improve the public schools by forcing them to compete for students with their private and parochial counterparts. In order to keep a large number of parents from moving their children to charter schools or using vouchers to send their children to the private schools, public schools have to upgrade their facilities, improve their instruction, and undertake other steps to make their brand of education an attractive alternative. In this way, school choice advocates argue, choice has a “competitive impact” that forces public schools to make themselves more attractive to prospective students (Walberg, 2007).
These students are participating in a school choice rally at the Arizona State Capitol building. School choice advocates argue that such programs give lower income students educational opportunities, while critics argue that school choice programs reduce enrollments and revenue at traditional public schools.Gage Skidmore – CC BY-SA 2.0 – Flickr
Critics of school choice programs say they hurt the public schools by decreasing their enrollments and therefore their funding. Public schools do not have the money now to compete with private and parochial ones, and neither will they have the money to compete with them if school choice becomes more widespread. Critics also worry that school choice will lead to a “brain drain” of the most academically motivated children and families from low-income schools (Caldas & Bankston, 2005).
Because school choice programs and school voucher systems are still relatively new, scholars have not yet had time to assess whether they improve or worsen the academic achievement of the students who attend them. Some studies do find small improvements, while others find no significant difference in academic outcome. One study of school choice on student outcomes in Chicago found no positive impact on academic outcomes, however, school choice students did have lower incidents of disciplinary actions, fewer arrests and lower rates of juvenile incarceration (Cullen, Jacob and Levitt, 2006). Although there is similarly little research on the impact of school choice programs on funding and other aspects of public-school systems, some evidence does indicate a negative impact. In Milwaukee, for example, enrollment decline from the use of vouchers cost the school system $26 million in state aid during the 1990s, forcing a rise in property taxes to replace the lost funds. Because the students who left the Milwaukee school system came from most of its 157 public schools, only a few left any one school, diluting the voucher system’s competitive impact. Another city, Cleveland, also lost state aid in the late 1990s because of the use of vouchers, and there, too, the competitive impact was small. Thus, although school choice programs may give some families alternatives to public schools, they might not have the competitive impact on public schools that their advocates claim, and they may cost public school systems state aid (Cooper, 1999; Lewin, 1999).
The issue of school violence won major headlines during the 1990s, when numerous children, teachers, and other individuals died from violent acts (including suicide) in the nation’s schools. From 1992 – 1999, this included 248 deaths on school property, during travel to and from school, or at a school-related event, for an average of about 35 violent deaths per year (Zuckoff, 1999). Against this backdrop, the infamous April 1999 school shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, where two students murdered 12 other students and one teacher before killing themselves, led to national soul-searching over the causes of teen and school violence and on possible ways to reduce it. Since the Columbine murders, it is reported that 220,000 students have experienced gun violence while at school (as victims and/or witnesses), with 383 deaths and 805 injuries of children, educators and other individuals (Cox, et. al, 2018; Irwin, et. al., 2021). With the exception of large-scale shootings, such as those at Sandy Hook Elementary School and Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, most of these incidents get little news coverage.
The deadliest school violence event in U.S. history occurred in Bath, MI on May 18, 1927, when Andrew Philip Kehoe, who was embittered by his recent loss in a race for a position on the town council and by his struggle to keep up with mortgage payments that he blamed on a tax hike levied to pay for the new school house, killed his wife, firebombed his own house, and detonated bombs placed under the school and in his truck. All told, 38 children and 7 adults were killed, including Kehoe and his wife, and 58 more people were injured (Mack, 2019). National Editorial Association/Associated Press – Public domain – Wikimedia Commons; Jtmichcock – CC BY-SA 3.0 – Wikimedia Commons
Fortunately, violent deaths in schools remain rare events. Below, Figure 13.7 “Number of students (aged 5 – 18), staff, and other nonstudent school-associated violent deaths (including homicides, suicides and legal intervention deaths involving law enforcement), School Years 1992–93 to 2017–18” demonstrates both the rarity and consistency in this number. As this trend indicates, the risk of school violence should not be exaggerated: statistically speaking, schools are very safe. Less than 1% of homicides involving school-aged children take place in or near school. In 2017-28, there were roughly 50.7 million students who attended elementary and secondary schools, with 23 student homicides a year on average (between 1992-93 and 2017-18), so the chances are about one in 1.8 million that a student will be killed at school. Bullying is a more common problem, with more than one of every five students ages of 12 – 18 reporting being bullied in 2019 (NCES, 2020).
Figure 13.7 Number of students (aged 5 – 18), staff, and other nonstudent school-associated violent deaths (including homicides, suicides and legal intervention deaths involving law enforcement), School Years 1992–93 to 2017–18
Source: Data from “Digest of Education Statistics, 2020.” National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, a Part of the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d20/tables/dt20_228.10.asp.
To reduce school violence, many school districts have zero-tolerance policies involving weapons. These policies call for automatic suspension or expulsion of a student who has anything resembling a weapon for any reason. For better or worse, however, there have been many instances in which these policies have been applied too rigidly. In one example, a 6-year-old boy in Delaware excitedly took his new camping utensil—a combination of knife, fork, and spoon—from Cub Scouts to school to use at lunch. He was suspended for having a knife and ordered to spend 45 days in reform school. His mother said her son certainly posed no threat to anyone at school, but school officials replied that their policy had to be strictly enforced because it is difficult to determine who actually poses a threat from who does not (Urbina, 2009).
Ironically, one reason many school districts have very strict policies is to avoid the racial discrimination that was seen to occur in districts whose officials had more discretion in deciding which students needed to be suspended or expelled. In these districts, African American students with weapons or “near-weapons” were more likely than white students with the same objects to be punished in this manner. This led to what became known as the school-to-prison pipeline: schools would suspend students for infractions, or allow a Resource Officer who was stationed in the school to handle issues instead of keeping the situation in house. This resulted in behavior becoming criminalized as either the school referred the matter to the police or court or the police officer responded by arresting the student. Either outcome – suspension or referral to the courts – caused students to fall behind; being disciplined by the courts meant the youth would have a police record. Regularly being out of school caused them to fall farther and farther behind, and being in contact with the courts caused students to continue to be in the criminal justice system hence the term school-to-prison pipeline (Nelson and Lind, 2015). Students trapped in this process tended to have learning disabilities, lived in poverty or in abusive or neglectful situations, or were African American (ACLU, n.d.). Regardless of the degree of discretion afforded officials in zero-tolerance policies, these policies have not been shown to be effective in reducing school violence and may actually raise rates of violence by the students who are suspended or expelled under these policies (Skiba & Rausch, 2006).
Focus on Higher Education
The issues and problems discussed so far in this chapter primarily concern the nation’s elementary and secondary schools in view of their critical importance for tens of millions of children and for the nation’s social and economic wellbeing. However, issues also affect higher education, and we examine a few of them here.
“What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves” (Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed). David Simon, in his book Social Problems and the Sociological Imagination: A Paradigm for Analysis (1995), points to the notion that social problems are, in essence, contradictions—that is, statements, ideas, or features of a situation that are opposed to one another. Consider then, that one of the greatest expectations in U.S. society is that to attain any form of success in life, a person needs an education. In fact, a college degree is rapidly becoming an expectation at many levels of success, not merely an enhancement to our occupational choices. And, as you might expect, the number of people graduating from college in the United States continues to rise dramatically.
The contradiction, however, lies in the fact that the more impactful a college degree has become, the harder it has become to achieve it. The cost of getting a college degree has risen sharply since the mid-1980s, while many important forms of government support have barely increased.
The net result is that those who do graduate from college are likely to begin a career in debt. As of 2009, a typical student’s loans amounted to around $23,000. Ten years later, the average amount of debt for students who took loans grew to over $30,000. The overall national student loan debt topped $1.6 trillion in 2020, according to the Federal Reserve. These rising costs and risky debt burdens have led to a number of diverse proposals for solutions. Some call for canceling current college debt and making more colleges free to qualifying students. Others advocate for more focused and efficient education in order to achieve needed career requirements more quickly. Employers, seeking both to widen their applicant pool and increase equity among their workforce, have increasingly sought ways to eliminate unnecessary degree requirements: If a person has the skills and knowledge to do the job, they have more access to it (Kerr 2020).
Figure 13.8 Unemployment rates for people age 25 and older by educational attainment
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Graphics for Economic News Releases, 2021. Data Source: https://www.bls.gov/charts/employment-situation/unemployment-rates-for-persons-25-years-and-older-by-educational-attainment.htm.
As can be seen in Figure 13.8 “Unemployment rates for people age 25 and older by educational attainment,” the overall unemployment rate began falling in 2009 after it peaked as a result of the Great Recession and continued its downward trend through the decade from 2010 to 2019. It then spiked again due to the COVID-19 pandemic but has been falling to more manageable levels. Note the differences in educational attainment and their impact on unemployment. People with bachelor’s degrees have the lowest levels of unemployment, while those without a high school diploma have the highest level.
Is a college degree still worth it? Lifetime earnings among those with a college degree are, on average, still much higher than for those without. A 2019 Federal Reserve report indicated that, on average, college graduates earn $30,000 per year more than non-college graduates. Also, that wage gap has nearly doubled in the past 40 years (Abel and Dietz, 2019).
Is the wage advantage enough to overcome the potential debt? And what’s behind those averages? Remember, since the $30,000 is an average, it also confirms what we see from other data: That certain people and certain college majors earn far more than others. As a result, earning a college degree in a field that has a smaller wage advantage over non-college graduates might not seem “worth it.” But is college worth more than money?
A student earning Associate’s and Bachelor’s degrees generally will often take a wide array of courses, including many outside of their major. The student is exposed to a fairly broad range of topics, from mathematics and the physical sciences to history and literature, the social sciences, and music and art through introductory and survey-styled courses. It is in this period that the student’s world view is, it is hoped, expanded. Then, when they begin the process of specialization, it is with a much broader perspective than might be otherwise. This additional “cultural capital” can further enrich the life of the student, enhance their ability to work with experienced professionals, and build wisdom upon knowledge. Over two thousand years ago, Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The real value of an education, then, is to enhance our skill at self-examination. Education, its impact, and its costs are important not just to sociologists, but to policymakers, employers, and of course to parents (Conerly, et. al., 2021).
Using Your Sociological Imagination
Figure 13.9 Median Lifetime Earnings by Educational Level, in Millions
Source: Carnevale, Anthony P., Ban Cheah and Emma Wenzinger, The College Payoff: More Education Doesn’t Always Mean More Earnings. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 2021. https://cew.georgetown.edu/collegepayoff2021.
According to the Education Data Initiative, in 2021, the average per year cost at an educational institution in the US has tripled over the past 20 years to $35,720 (https://educationdata.org/). That means if a student started their first year in September 2021 at a school that costs $35,720/year, they would end up spending over $158,000, if the per year cost continues to increase at the rate it has for the past 20 years. Of course there is a wide array of institutions that confer bachelor’s degrees—from public to private—and the associated per year costs vary accordingly. But, remember, $35,720 is the media, so it’s in the middle. Compare these costs to Figure 13.9 “Median Lifetime Earnings by Educational Level, in Millions,” which shows that earning a bachelor’s degree brings in an average of $2.8 million lifetime earnings, compared to someone with a high school degree, who can expect to earn $1.6 million over their lifetime.
Given what you’ve read about the importance of education in the preceding paragraphs, which question do you think is more appropriate: Can you afford a college education, or can you afford NOT to have a college education? Answer whichever question you feel is appropriate but explain your answer.
Social Class and Race in Admissions
We saw earlier in this chapter that African American, Latinx Americans, and low-income students are less likely to attend college. This fact raises important questions about the lack of diversity in college admissions and campus life. Chapter 9 “Race and Ethnicity” discussed the debate over racially based affirmative action in higher education. Partly because affirmative action is so controversial, attention has begun to focus on the low numbers of low-income students at many colleges and universities, especially the more selective institutions that rank highly in ratings issued by U.S. News & World Report and other sources. Many education scholars and policymakers feel that increasing the number of low-income students would not only help these students but also increase campus diversity along the lines of socioeconomic status and race/ethnicity (since students of color are more likely to be from low-income backgrounds). Efforts to increase the number of low-income students, these experts add, would avoid the controversy that has surrounded affirmative action.
Although colleges and universities are making a greater effort to attract and retain low-income students, these students remain greatly underrepresented at institutions of higher education. Bart Everson – Students – CC BY 2.0
In response to this new attention to social class, colleges and universities have begun to increase their efforts to attract and retain low-income students. The dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard University summarized these efforts as follows: “I honestly cannot think of any admissions person I know who is not looking—as sort of a major criteria of how well their year went—at how well they did in attracting people of different economic backgrounds” (Schmidt, 2010).
As part of their strategy to attract and retain low-income students, Harvard and other selective institutions are now providing financial aid to cover all or most of the students’ expenses. Despite these efforts, however, the U.S. higher education system has become more stratified by social class in recent decades: the richest students now occupy a greater percentage of the enrollment at the most selective institutions than in the past, while the poorest students occupy a greater percentage of the enrollment at less selective 4-year institutions and at community colleges (Schmidt, 2010).
Think Like a Sociologist
Ludwig – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 – Flickr
generally refers to a practice of awarding students higher grades than they have earned. It reflects the observation that the relationship between letter grades and the achievements they reflect has been changing over time. Put simply, what used to be considered C-level, or average, now often earns a student a B, or even an A.
Some, including administrators at elite universities, argue that grade inflation does not exist, or that there are other factors at play, or even that it has benefits such as increased funding and elimination of inequality (Boleslavsky, 2014). But the evidence reveals a stark change. Based on data compiled from a wide array of four-year colleges and universities, a widely cited study revealed that the number of A grades has been increasing by several percentage points per decade, and that A’s were the most common grade awarded (Jaschik, 2016). In an anecdotal case, a Harvard dean acknowledged that the median grade there was an A-. Williams College found that the number of A+ grades had grown from 212 instances in 2009-10 to 426 instances in 2017-18 (Berlinsky-Schine, 2020). Princeton University took steps to reduce inflation by limiting the number of A’s that could be issued, though it later reversed course (Greason, 2020).
Why is this happening? Some cite the alleged shift toward a culture that rewards effort instead of product, i.e., the amount of work a student puts in raises the grade, even if the resulting product is poor quality. Another oft-cited contributor is the pressure for instructors to earn positive course evaluations from their students. Finally, many colleges may accept a level of grade inflation because it works. Analysis and formal experiments involving graduate school admissions and hiring practices showed that students with higher grades are more likely to be selected for a job or a graduate school. And those higher-grade applicants are still preferred even if the decision-maker knows that the applicant’s college may be inflating grades (Swift, 2013). Ironically, grade inflation is not simply a college issue. Many of the same college faculty and administrators who encounter or engage in some level of grade inflation may lament that it is also occurring at high schools (Murphy, 2017; Conerly, 2021).
From a functionalist perspective, one might consider the letter grading system to have manifest functions, one of which might be to organize students according to their abilities. That way, as students graduate, employers or school administrators would be able to make decisions about potential employees or students. Another function of the letter grading system, perhaps even a latent function, might be to motivate students. On the other hand, some schools (elite among them) have eliminated the traditional grading system; some don’t offer grades below a C (in some cases, failing grades aren’t reported on transcripts); others offer students the option of receiving a pass/fail grade; and some offer any combination of alternative grades.
How might students be motivated to do better by the traditional grading system? How does grade inflation fit into your answer?
Could you make a similar argument about alternative grading discussed above?
Disparate Graduation Rates
For the sake of students and their colleges and universities, it is important that as many students as possible go on to earn their diplomas. However, only 62.4% of students at 4-year institutions graduate within 6 years. This figure varies by type of institution. At 4-year public institutions, 61.2% of first-time, full-time students graduate within 6 years, while at private nonprofit institutions the rate is 67.2%, compared to the 25.4% who graduate from private for-profit institutions within the same timeframe (Debrey, et. al., 2021).
The 62.4% overall rate masks a racial/ethnic difference in graduation rates. As shown below in Figure 13.10 “Graduation Rate for First-Time, Full-Time Students Enrolled at 4-Year Colleges and Universities within 6-years (2012 Starting Cohort), by Race and Ethnicity,” the rate of graduation varies significantly, with the lowest rates for American Indian/Alaska Native and African American students, and the highest for Asian American students.
Figure 13.10 Graduation Rate for First-Time, Full-Time Students Enrolled at 4-Year Colleges and Universities within 6-years (2012 Starting Cohort), by Race and Ethnicity
*AI/AN represents American Indians and Alaskan Natives
Source: De Brey, C., Snyder, T.D., Zhang, A., and Dillow, S.A. (2021). Digest of Education Statistics 2019 (NCES 2021-009). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC.
At some institutions, the graduation rates of Latinx and African American students match those of whites, thanks in large part to efforts by these institutions to provide resources to students of color. As one expert on this issue explains, “What colleges do for students of color powerfully impacts the futures of these young people and that of our nation” (Gonzalez, 2010). Another expert placed this issue into a larger context: “For both moral and economic reasons, colleges need to ensure that their institutions work better for all the students they serve” (Stephens, 2010).
In this regard, it is important to note that the graduation rate of low-income students from 4-year institutions is much lower than the graduation rate of wealthier students. Low-income students drop out at higher rates because of academic and financial difficulties and family problems (Berg, 2010). Their academic and financial difficulties are intertwined. Low-income students often have to work many hours per week during the academic year to be able to pay their bills. Because their work schedules reduce the time they have for studying, their grades may suffer. This general problem has been made worse by cutbacks in federal grants to low-income students that began during the 1980s. These cutbacks forced low-income students to rely increasingly on loans, which have to be repaid. This fact leads some to work more hours during the academic year to limit the loans they must take out, and their increased work schedule again may affect their success.
Low-income students face additional difficulties beyond the financial (Berg, 2010). Their writing and comprehension skills upon entering college are often weaker than those of wealthier students. If they are first-generation college students (meaning that neither parent went to college), they often have problems navigating and adjusting to campus life and living amid students from much more advantaged backgrounds.
Remote and Hybrid Schooling
The COVID-19 pandemic was among the most disruptive events in American education. You likely have your own stories, successes, failures, and preferences based on your experiences as students, parents and family members. Educators at every level went through stages of intense stress, lack of information, and difficult choices. In many cities and states, families, school districts, governments, and health departments found themselves on different sides of debates. Countless arguments raged over attendance, mental health, instructional quality, safety, testing, academic integrity, and the best ways to move forward as the situation began to improve.
College students and their families went through similar disruptions and debates, compounded by the fact that many students felt that the high costs of particular colleges were not worth it. Overall college enrollment dipped significantly during the pandemic (Koenig 2020).
At the time of this writing, the sociological and educational impact of the pandemic is difficult to assess, though many are studying it. Overall data indicates that most outcomes are negative. Students underperformed, stress and mental health problems increased, and overall plans and pathways were interrupted. Perhaps most damaging was that the pandemic amplified many of the other challenges in education, meaning that under-resourced districts and underserved students were impacted even more severely than others. On the other hand, once instructors and students adapted to the technological and social differences, many began to employ new techniques to ensure more caretaking, connection, differentiated instruction, and innovation. Most agree that education will be changed for years following the pandemic, but it might not all be for the worse (Conerly, 2021).
Section 13.4 References
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segregation mandated by law
a form segregation that occurs "by fact" but is not mandated by law
a practice of awarding students higher grades than they have earned