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Michael Crow: Higher education has the potential to remedy social inequality

Michael Crow

Michael Crow

There is a well-established link between one’s level of educational attainment and social advancement. Unfortunately, the recent drift of the national discussion on higher education, aided by a recent New York Times column by Paul Krugman, questions that correlation. As the president of a large public research university and a policy scholar, I am concerned that the contention expressed in the Times that levels of power, rather than education, drive soaring inequality will only provide ammunition to those who would undermine our nation’s public universities.

Basic economics will tell us that inequality cannot be solely the outcome of the powerful leveraging elite status for self-enrichment. In a country of 320 million, emergent economic outcomes cannot be described with such simple explanations. Such outcomes are a product of complex interactions among a diversity of actors influenced by varied incentives, information flows, and interrelated dynamics. There is no end of economic analysis and social scientific assessments to support the correlation between educational attainment and intergenerational social mobility.

When examining the labor market at a level broader than single occupations, there is clear evidence of a growing wage divergence with respect to educational attainment. The Pew Research Center assessment of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, for example, found that millennials (in 2013) with a bachelor’s degree earned 62.5 percent more than peers with only a high school diploma. This is significantly larger than the difference observed in the 23.7 percent premium earned by college graduates in the Silent Generation (in 1965) relative to their peers with only high school diplomas.

A Brookings analysis of the panel study of income dynamics was cited in the U.S. Treasury report that showed that education levels are particularly associated with intergenerational economic mobility. Of adults raised in the lowest income quintile, 45 percent remained in the lowest income as adults if they did not complete a college degree. Of those who did complete college, 84 percent were able to escape the lowest income quintile as adults.

An unfortunate trend in journalism generally is to seek the counterintuitive thesis rather than the most accurate, thus the recent spate of articles questioning the value of a college degree or, in Paul Krugman’s column in the Times, the baffling suggestion that growing inequality is a partisan conspiracy. All of these assessments are remarkably defeatist.

Delineating the correlates of educational attainment has in fact been one of the objectives of my new book, coauthored with William Dabars, which presents a new and complementary model for the American research university. Designing the New American University (Johns Hopkins University Press) argues that the set of major research universities uniquely offers academic platforms that combine discovery and knowledge production with programs of undergraduate and graduate education that enable competitiveness in the knowledge economy. Instead of the intensely selective admissions process that excludes the majority of qualified applicants, the New American University model that I envisioned when I left Columbia University for Arizona State offers broad accessibility to an academic platform of discovery and knowledge production as well as societal impact.

Accessibility to academic excellence is similarly the context for the formation of the University Innovation Alliance, which endeavors to promote student success at public research universities. Our eleven member institutions—large public research universities, which in addition to ASU include Ohio State and the University of Texas, Austin—are committed to collaboration to reshape the future of American higher education.

At Arizona State University we have succeeded in proving that an institution can compete with the world’s leading universities academically, yet remain broadly inclusive while advancing a vanguard research enterprise dedicated to the public interest. Our vision calls for inclusivity rather than exclusivity and an emphasis on outcomes rather than inputs. While the argument has been made that higher education has become an institution that reproduces class privilege in our society, it instead can serve to redress that very inequality.

– Michael Crow is president of Arizona State University


  1. Might the argument that higher education merits support because it potentially may reduce social inequality be a reason to justify further cuts by the legislature?

    Unfortunately, the galleries are filling with proponents of class privilege and inequality who believe that good things will come to those who cheer the least educated side. We are witnessing the emergence of a ruling class who claim they did not need an education to gain power. And some finance a public denial of science and education. Diploma mills flourish – where the title means more than knowledge and skills. It has been building for some time. I recall that I was coached by some colleagues to hide my Stanford PhD while in the legislature.

    Ted Downing, former State Representative

  2. Restructure the Arizona University System to provide greater accessibility, affordability. and accountability to a public university education for many more Arizonans:

  3. If this is the case, I wonder why Dr. Crow hasn’t tried advocating for lower tuition costs at ASU. I don’t disagree that having a college degree opens up career opportunities which usually lead to more money, but if higher education has the potential to narrow that social gap, wouldn’t it then make sense to make that higher education more realistically attainable? I wasn’t a fan of the President’s free community college idea but I do think that opening academic doors for lower – income households does have the potential to help. Why doesn’t he lead the way and lower tuition rates at ASU?

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