- K-12 Education
- Higher Education
- Who We Are
In 1971, a lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court that would have a profound impact on the way American schools are funded. Serrano v. Priest was the first in a wave of elementary and secondary school finance cases that would touch nearly every state in the nation and continues to this day. Existing funding regimes have been torn down, constitutional crises provoked, and billions of dollars spent in the name of achieving financial equity between school districts that serve the rich and the poor.
Nothing similar has ever happened in higher education. Desegregation lawsuits have brought some increased equity, but states have never had to defend the fairness of their higher education financing systems in court—at least not on grounds of economic discrimination as opposed to racial bias.
It's certainly not because no inequities exist. Nationally, public four-year universities whose students arrive with an average SAT score (or ACT equivalent) greater than 1050 spend roughly $3,725, or 45 percent, more per student than universities where student scores fall below that cutoff. These numbers only include spending on instruction, academic support, and student services—not research.
Because SAT scores track closely with family income, first-generation status, and the quality of high school preparation, they're a good proxy for how states choose to allocate resources between advantaged and disadvantaged students.
And as the table below shows, some states disparities are far above the national average. (My methodology is available here.)
This kind of analysis works better in some states than others. In
But some states have a lot of both kinds of university, and spending on students is almost uniformly higher in the institutions with higher SATs. And no state has a larger disparity than in
This is partly because the legal hurdles are lower for elementary and secondary students seeking redress. While all state constitutions have an "education clause" mandating the provision of free K–12 schools, they don't offer similar guarantees of postsecondary education. Serrano, however, was based on the
But the true causes of complacency run deeper. Money and opportunity are distributed this way because many people believe it is right and just to do so. Indeed, the
But in the long run, the great pyramid of American higher education, which gives more to those who arrive with more and less to those with less, represents an ethos and theory of resource allocation whose time is passing. There are few—if any—opportunities today for students who stop learning once they reach adulthood. Higher education is for everyone now. That's why nearly 70 percent of high school graduates are going directly to college—a record high. If the wise men who enshrined education into state constitutions as an inalienable right in the 19th century confronted the same task today, they might well conclude that those guarantees should extend beyond the secondary years.
And everything we know from educational research—at both the K–12 and higher education level—suggests that academically at-risk students are more sensitive than their higher-achieving peers to differences in the quality of education they receive. Elite institutions packed to the gills with valedictorians are showering resources on students whose abundance of economic, academic, and social capital all but guarantee success, regardless of where they go to college.
Low-wealth, less-selective institutions, by contrast, serve many students with only a tenuous grasp on the ladder of opportunity. Many of those students got a lousy high school education, struggle to pay for college, and contend with multiple demands of employment and family. These are people for whom higher education is everything, the difference between one kind of life and another. And while there are surely countless professors at their colleges who are giving them a fantastic education, they do so in spite of our current financial priorities, not because of them.
These inequities are partly an artifact of history. The K–12 schools developed from the ground up, with tens of thousands of local districts serving all classes of students. The higher education sector, by contrast, was built from the top down, starting with the most well-off students and expanding to include the masses only in the last 60 years or so. Long-established institutions like
But the leading institutions are failing to meet their obligation to the greater public good. Instead, the flagship universities routinely throw their weight around in statehouses, seducing politicians with promises of the next
And instead of working to make the higher education pyramid a little less steep, many less-elite institutions are trying to climb it, funneling money to marketing campaigns and enrollment management consultants in an effort to attract "better" students—even as more and more students (who are by that way of thinking, "worse") are arriving at the front door of the academy, desperately needing to learn. These institutions are responding to the reigning system of values and institutional incentives, driven by popular college rankings and a sense that institutional quality is a function of how smart students are when they arrive, not how much they learn before they leave. As F. King Alexander, president of California State Long Beach, recently said in explaining why he wants to buck this trend, "all of the pressure flows in one way—to do a good job with the best prepared students."
Last year, the state of
In many states, students who have benefited from similar efforts at the K–12 level will enter a higher education system with a very different attitude toward economic fairness. Nobody is standing at the courthouse door waiting to petition on their behalf. At least, not yet.