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Commentary

Are Universities Truly ‘Liberal’ or ‘Progressive’? Rhetoric and Reality



There is tons of evidence that in general American higher education has a strong left-of-center political orientation. Surveys show an overwhelming majority of faculty in disciplines with a strong public policy orientation are left of center. Political donations go mostly for Democrats. Polling by both Gallup and the Pew Research Center suggests that Democrats are far more supportive of universities than Republicans and, indeed, declining support by Republicans has been particularly pronounced in recent years.

Two goals historically cherished by most individuals and groups with a progressive orientation are the reduction in income inequality and the elimination of race-based discrimination against persons. How have universities fostered the achievement of these goals? A very good case can be made that higher education’s increased involvement over time has worsened achieving both of these goals.

Compare America of 1970 with that of 2018. In 1970, about 10% of adult Americans had bachelor’s degrees or more, compared with more than 30% today. In the past half century, college has become attainable by more than rich or even prosperous upper middle class individuals. Many liberals thought that by providing a ticket to good jobs, college education would reduce inequalities in America, furthering the achievement of the American Dream.

Yet the evidence suggests otherwise. The expansion of higher education has occurred almost in lockstep with rising income inequality as conventionally measured. Census Bureau data show that family, household or personal income has become more unequally distributed since the early 1970s, after having become more equal between 1929 and about 1973. College diplomas have helped employers identify individuals who are smart, dependable, ambitious, and honest, characteristics often largely acquired even before entering college. Labor markets over the past two generations have generally favored those with superior mental qualities, disfavoring those with strong physical attributes like strength and endurance. Factory workers have lost ground to brainy computer programmers, accountants and scientists. The “sheepskin effect” of the diploma is great, and Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education demonstrates that most of the income increment associated with gaining a degree has little to do with skills acquired while in college.

The diploma-granting status of universities has unwittingly promoted greater income inequality. High school graduates over the past half-century have had earnings decline relative to those with college degrees (although that is not so true in the past decade). Colleges have, in effect, encouraged young Americans to get a diploma so they can see their income increase relative to those failing to do so.

This has been exacerbated by colleges’ selective admissions policies. Although the more prestigious selective admissions schools whose graduates earn especially high incomes talk constantly about their commitment to diversity and serving a broad population, evidence accumulated by Harvard’s Raj Chetty and associates strongly shows that the probability of attending a top-quality school is dramatically greater for those from higher-income backgrounds. High-income parents invest in their children, sending them to the best public or private schools, financing all sorts of supplemental nurturing of their minds. Thus, the Ivy League and a few dozen other schools form an academic aristocracy, favoring rich kids over poor ones. Legacy preferences reinforce that tendency. Is it no wonder that income inequality has grown with increased college attendance?

Colleges are falling over each other to bring in racial minorities, creating vast “diversity” bureaucracies, showing blatant preferences towards people of color. This often promotes less “diversity” than it does old-fashioned race-based segregation, most obviously manifested in such things as buildings where only blacks (or some other favored group such as Hispanics) are welcome. Colleges feel guilty because they are predominantly white, so they brag about their diversity and then often make decisions more on the basis of color or other group characteristics than on the basis of merit. Martin Luther King showed a truly liberal, progressive spirit in calling for a color-blind society. Today’s university “diversocrats” are doing the opposite. So many universities talk about being progressive and liberal, but often truly behave quite differently.


Richard K. Vedder is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Economics at Ohio University, and co-author (with Lowell Gallaway) of the award-winning Independent Institute book, Out of Work: Unemployment and Government in Twentieth-Century America.


From Richard K. Vedder
CAN TEACHERS OWN THEIR OWN SCHOOLS?: New Strategies for Educational Excellence
In Can Teachers Own Their Own Schools?, Richard Vedder examines the economics, history, and politics of education and argues that public schools should be privatized. Privatized public schools would benefit from competition, market discipline, and the incentives essential to produce cost-effective, educational quality, and attract the additional funding and expertise needed to revolutionize school systems.







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