Social Inequality and the Access Myth

Is lack of opportunity the real problem?
By Heather A. Howley

In September 2015, President Obama said, “The students I hear from every day remind me that if we can come together around the idea that every American—no matter where they grew up or how much money their parents have—deserves a quality education and a shot at success, then we can build a future as remarkable as our past.”

It is difficult to pinpoint when the American dream transformed from something in which everyone was a potential participant into a lottery-like “shot at success.” Although always a rhetorical trope used to minimize social inequality in the United States, the American dream has been downgraded by both political parties, suggesting that a middle-class life is now reserved for the semielite—the ones who complete college and choose an in-demand career. Plans to eliminate tuition at community colleges or four-year public institutions will benefit the students who attend as well as their communities. Educated populaces are more economically productive, healthier (physically and relationally), and more engaged in the democratic process. However, these benefits, as great as they are, do not provide a solution to the destructive inequalities that affect low-wage workers.

The middle class was built largely through unions that fought for wages responsive to inflation and working conditions compatible with participation in family and community life. These same unions helped usher in an era of affordable health care and dependable retirement income. Even today, unions positively affect their communities, creating a climate of greater worker agency that leads to better working conditions as well as social mobility.

Increasing public goods such as education, transportation, public utilities, and health and safety services, in conjunction with regulating exploitative labor practices, has traditionally mitigated inequalities produced by the market. Neither of the major political parties today emphasizes these proven means. Republicans seem content to allow gaps between the wealthy and the rest of us to increase. The Democratic Party acknowledges that social inequality is a problem but, with the exception of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, subscribes to what I will refer to as the access myth: mobility through higher education.

The access myth shifts the responsibility for inequality away from our hypercapitalist system and onto the working poor by reframing inequality as the result of a lack of entry points into the system. For the most part, the Democrats have abandoned the idea of addressing social inequality in favor of creating opportunities for mobility.

Media Narrative

The access myth is a far more palatable narrative for the media. The heroic journeys of the dauntless working class, fighting their way upward, make for good stories. One predominant theme in the media today focuses on how to ensure that exceptionally smart but impoverished students have the resources to apply to elite colleges and universities. In 2014, The Upshot, a New York Times section dedicated to data analysis, created the College Access Index to rank top institutions by their economic diversity. The Times devotes a number of articles to admissions issues, including barriers working-class students face.

New York Times op-ed columnists frequently invoke the access myth as an underlying reason for promoting technologies and reforms that make higher education more widely available. Their perspectives are influential not only because politicians, policy makers, and many other leaders read the New York Times but also because their columns are syndicated in other newspapers throughout the country. Thomas Friedman’s boldly titled January 2013 column, “Revolution Hits the Universities,” proclaims of massive open online courses (MOOCs), “Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty— by providing them an affordable education to get a job.” Nicholas Kristof, in his October 2014 article “The American Dream Is Leaving America,” laments that “the best escalator to opportunity in America is education. But . . . the escalator is broken.” He tells the story of his own father, a World War II refugee, who taught himself English by reading the New York Times and then went on to go to college and become a university professor.

The access myth has so much traction because like other good myths it holds some truth. As Eduardo Porter demonstrates in his September 2014 New York Times article, “A Simple Equation: More Education = More Income,” the gap between college-educated and high school–educated Americans has never been greater. According to Porter, college graduates earn 74 percent more than those with only a high school degree. Increasing access to higher education should be a part of a much broader policy agenda to reduce inequality by addressing structural poverty and poor labor conditions. However, when lack of social mobility is equated with social inequality, creating opportunity becomes a substitute for justice.

Role of Reformers

The same arguments that underpin the access myth justify the slash-and-burn approach of reformers who argue that higher education institutions have failed the working poor by saddling students with unmanageable debt and granting degrees that do not lead to employment. Under the guise of cost reduction, general education and remedial classes are on the chopping block. The emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields and the reduction of the humanities is a market-driven policy masquerading as a student-centered one. As Wright State University professor Martin Kich points out in an August 2015 post on the Academe Blog, “The Urgent Demand for STEM Graduates Is Dubious,” the promotion of STEM fields to the point of oversaturation may in fact be an attempt to “depress wages in those high-wage” fields.

The Lumina Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation aggressively promote higher education reform under the pretext of the access myth. The Gates Foundation’s website states that “a college education is the gateway to the American middle class” and describes its mission as one that “envisions a US higher education system that propels social mobility.” Gates also works with partners “to transform higher education business models.” The Lumina Foundation’s website proclaims, “It’s clear that higher education remains the best avenue to prosperity, opportunity, and a stronger nation.” The Gates and Lumina Foundations play the role of disinterested parties in the politics of higher education. Yet both foundations have the goal of disrupting the classroom through online technologies and competency-based learning, as well as through the creation of policies that disrupt the nonprofit aims of higher education. The foundations joined together to launch state authorization reciprocity agreements that allow online institutions to offer programming to students in any member state, bypassing state regulations while further disrupting funding models.

The Lumina Foundation has asked states to sign a pledge to increase college enrollment in order to “increase the proportion of Americans with postsecondary credentials to 60 percent by 2025.” Its policy agenda calls for state legislators to make curriculum-based decisions using regulations or funding as a way to exert influence over institutions. In addition to calling for regulated credit hours and requiring students to choose a major within the first semester, the foundation advocates for a model that would allow students to transfer frequently between institutions. The Lumina Foundation’s definition of a “student-centered” education model is similar to the Gates Foundation’s “personalized” model—both position the student as the consumer of educational goods. It is much easier to monetize educational goods when they can be packaged and delivered through technologies.

The Gates Foundation website links to EdSurge, a technology company that sells products to schools through the “edtech concierge.” And the foundation mixes EdSurge “articles,” a form of embedded advertising, into its feed of educational updates. For example, a link posted in the “Updates” section of the Gates Foundation website in the January 4, 2016, article, “Want to Prevent College Dropouts? Look Outside the Classroom,” takes the reader to the EdSurge page. The article’s author, Peter Wheelan, is the founder of InsideTrack, a success-coaching service. After outlining a series of problems facing working students, Wheelan highlights a series of “innovative” university partnerships with hyperlinks. The hyperlinks take the reader to a variety of InsideTrack services. Embedded advertising is effective because the reader may not realize that EdSurge and InsideTrack are actually for-profit companies, selling products.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s Starbucks College Achievement Plan is perhaps a logical consequence of “access” rhetoric and embedded advertising. The plan entitles employees who work twenty hours per week in stand-alone Starbucks stores to tuition reimbursement (combined with federal financial aid) for an online degree from Arizona State University. In their July 2015 New York Times op-ed, “Connecting Young People with Jobs,” Howard and Sheri Schultz write, “While some have lost hope in this population, blaming them and their families for creating their own problems, we believe these young people represent a significant untapped resource of productivity and talent. With the right support and training, they can benefit our businesses and our communities. . . . This is not charity. It solves a real business problem.”

Apparently, the Schultzes are imagining an audience of Ayn Randian capitalists who have a disdain for charitable organizations and impoverished youth. By providing access to an online college and job training, businesses, in turn, can tap into a labor force whose members possess the ability to increase their prosperity without challenge. Why not reimburse students at their local community college and give something back to the communities where the students live and work?

One reason may be that it is difficult to attend physical classes when workers’ schedules change substantially from week to week and some stores still practice “clopenings” (scheduling a worker to close a store and then open the next day). Such practices are routine for many low-wage workers, as Jodi Kantor documented in her August 2014 New York Times article, “Working Anything but 9 to 5.” A less obvious reason for Starbucks’s decision to reimburse ASU online tuition may be that community colleges offer workers a place to gather, exchange ideas, and discuss working conditions outside of the job. Online tools have increased connectivity, but effective organizing has a tactile, socially situated component that bubbles up from local conditions. Workers give employers a reason to negotiate by refusing to conduct business as usual. Clicks and petitions suggest change but a picket line demands it.

Uses of the Access Myth

Americans have been encouraged to embrace the access myth as part of a worldview that prizes competitiveness, individualism, and the meritocracy. In an uncertain, disruptive universe (in which job guarantees are for those who have stopped “leaning in”), job security, good health care, and retirement become synonymous with “entitlement.” When the market becomes a metaphor for life, inequality appears to be a natural result of stratification. The economic separation and disparity of working conditions between the fast-food worker and PepsiCo’s CEO, or between an adjunct faculty member and a tenured professor, also appear natural.

By equating inequality with a lack of social mobility, corporations, foundations, and university presidents can embed the privatization of education in calls for access. The use of success-coaching firms, expensive learning-management systems, and competency-based educational goods appears laudable rather than profit-driven.

Politicians have used access arguments to attack shared governance, academic freedom, tenure, and union membership by suggesting that full-time faculty members are simply too expensive. Instead of increasing state or federal support for public higher education, self-styled reformers have used student debt and arguments about lack of access to attack the faculty.

Kevin Carey, a New York Times contributing columnist, echoes some arguments that faculty members have been making for years about rising student debt and education costs. He lambastes universities for increasing tuition to pay for buildings and costly campus amenities. He is critical of for-profit institutions and addresses student debt regularly in The Upshot. He calls for more regulation and oversight, especially of for-profit schools that prey upon the working poor and offer expensive job-specific degrees. While many of his articles tackle themes that would also appear in this magazine, Carey’s framing of higher education links access with customer service.

In his July 2015 column “The Fundamental Ways That Universities Are an Illusion,” Carey argues that universities “are not coherent academic enterprises with consistent standards of classroom excellence. When it comes to exerting influence over teaching and learning, they’re Easter eggs.” When faculty control the curriculum, according to Carey, they create “customer confusion.” Carey doesn’t directly attack tenure or academic freedom. His arguments are aimed at the structural, temporal, and spatial boundaries of higher education. His work can be summed up as follows: higher education is a mess because students attend colleges at specific locations for relatively short periods of time but emerge into a marketplace that is global and fluid. In his 2015 book The End of College, Carey imagines cathedral-like universities that are everywhere and nowhereInstead of being bound by disciplines and degrees, “people will join colleges and other learning organizations for as long or as little time as they need.”

Carey’s cathedral metaphor is telling. People go to church to receive clarification on ideology; when they go to college, their ideas are challenged. Carey argues that the boundless university will liberate education from institutions and increase human prosperity, but if colleges become cathedrals, students become only learners and not thinkers. Perhaps “customer confusion” is precisely what most faculty strive to create for their students, challenging them to think beyond the limits of received ideas.

Tenured faculty stand in the way of the boundless university because job security gives us a stake in the university’s most basic operations. We also serve as a nexus point between the educational mission of the institution and our individual disciplines. Tenure is important precisely because our expertise is not tied to a chaotic market. Yet many administrations equate tenure with higher salaries and regular working conditions, knowing that by cutting tenure-track positions, they can cut the cost of instruction significantly. Our adjunct colleagues are already working in the boundless university, schlepping between multiple institutions in order to make a living wage.

Academic freedom is perhaps even more dangerous to the customer-service model because it locates knowledge within human expression and thought, the antithesis of the commodity. While YouTube videos can serve up and monetize skill development, cultivating the habits of thought acquired through disciplinary study requires communities of faculty and students in communication with one another. Disruptive technologies offer a cheaper means of delivery for the banking model of education, but they cannot recreate the engagement and discussion that occurs in most college classes. Violations of academic freedom most often make headlines when faculty are dismissed over free expression or when research findings challenge a corporate donor. Yet the ability to wander through a discussion, to pause a lesson plan for a vibrant debate, and to be responsive in classroom exchanges is the result of a higher education system rooted in academic freedom and tenure.

For us as faculty members, it is tempting to buy into the access myth politically and as an explanation for the social inequalities that exist within our own ranks. A college education does increase opportunity and create a better life for those fortunate enough to complete a degree. Our classrooms can be a source of human liberation and prosperity. However, increasing access to higher education will not solve the disparities created by social inequality. If we accept the argument that a degree is necessary for a “shot at success” and that creating opportunity for social mobility is enough, then it would appear that we have an ethical responsibility to gear higher education toward the marketplace. However, the recent failure of several for-profit institutions strongly suggests that bending to the will of the market would lead to higher unemployment and student debt as soon as a particular field becomes saturated or evolves. Our universities must exist outside of the market so that our students can move beyond its confines.

We must refuse to accept exploitative labor practices, whether at our local fast-food restaurants or down the hall where our colleagues “clopen” for months at a time and do not make a living wage. Many of our colleagues on contingent appointments do not even receive the psychic income traditionally associated with the life of the mind: the ability to bring one’s own expertise to a course or shape the curriculum.

The social inequality that exists within our ranks is not a result of differing academic qualifications or an institutional need for a fluid labor force. By reducing the number of full-time faculty, administrators can build stadiums and reduce challenges posed by often critical stakeholders. Yet it is unlikely that full-time positions will be totally eliminated, because equality creates unity and unity facilitates organizing. Keeping intact the ladder, the myth that full-time tenured positions are still possible, ensures that many will cling to their rung for fear of falling.

Whether we are union members or not, we must challenge social inequality at this system’s roots, working side by side with and supporting the efforts of both academic and nonacademic unions to address low wages and poor working conditions. Collective action to raise the minimum wage or require an increase in full-time positions does more than improve the lives of the working poor. It also upholds an alternative set of values—such as cooperation and community—that are at the heart of our democracy.

Heather A. Howley is associate professor of communication at the University of Akron, Wayne College. She serves as treasurer for the Ohio AAUP conference. Her e-mail address is [email protected].