Fewer college grads? Blame politicians, professor says

Mar 16, 2015

Cornell University political science professor and author Suzanne Mettler talks to 'St. Louis on the Air' host Don Marsh on Monday at St. Louis Public Radio in St. Louis.
Credit Alex Heuer / St. Louis Public Radio

Millions of students are enrolled in college, but graduation rates are uneven. Why? Author Suzanne Mettler says political squabbling is to blame.

Mettler, a political science professor at Cornell University, has written a book that lays out the problem and its solution: “Degrees of Inequality: The Demise of Opportunity in Higher Education and How to Restore the American Dream.”

“We talk a lot about how polarization (in Congress) gets in the way of creating new laws because it leads to stalemate,” Mettler told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Monday. “What I’ve found is that it even gets in the way of maintaining existing laws. Public policies, like anything else, as they age they need updating and maintenance. In the past couple of decades, in many policy areas, not just higher education, we have policies that are not functioning well. Unintended consequences crop up; other policies compete for funds with them; you get policy designs working in ways they were not intended to work, and so on. The net effect of all of this is that we are no longer expanding access to opportunity through higher education effectively.”

As an example, Mettler pointed to the Pell grant program which, when it was created in the 1970s, allowed students to attend a public four-year college or university and covered nearly 80 percent of the student’s tuition, room and board, and fees. Now, that same grant covers just more than 30 percent, Mettler said.

“More students than ever go to college, but it’s only those who come from the top quarter of the income spectrum who are very likely to finish their degree within six years — by age 24,” she said. “For people in the bottom 75 percent, the results are very poor and they’ve hardly increased since the 1970s. For people who grow up in the bottom quarter of the income spectrum, it’s now only one in 10 who have a college degree by age 24. It was 6 percent in the 1970s, so it’s barely increased.”

Mettler’s solution sounds rather simple, but is complicated to execute.  

“Lawmakers need to get back to maintaining existing policies,” she said. “We need to find ways to reauthorize the Higher Education Act and to regulate the for-profit colleges, to improve state funding, et cetera.”

Related event

Book discussion and signing with author Suzanne Mettler

  • When: 4 to 6:30 p.m. Monday, March 16, 2015
  • Where: Community Room, University of Missouri—St. Louis at Grand Center, 3651 Olive St., St. Louis
  • More information

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.