The American dream making a come back

A failing school system has eroded meritocracy in America. But innovative educators are turning the tide.
Graduating students at Arizona State University, 2009. Credit: Joshua Lott / Getty Images.
Graduating students at Arizona State University, 2009. Credit: Joshua Lott / Getty Images.
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Meritocracy is the great dream of the American higher education system, and the dream persists even though it has been many decades since it was anywhere close to a reality. Come to our campus, goes the soothing mantra, see the vast array of courses we offer, take your pick from dozens of majors, and you too will have your chance to snag a degree and clamber up the American socio-economic ladder.

It’s a siren song that continues to lure bright high school graduates of all income levels and backgrounds. The gilded few, those whose parents are themselves college-educated and can absorb the ever-spiralling costs, tend to encounter few disappointments. For too many others, though, embarking on the of a four-year degree requires them to load up with debt and, often, to work at least one paying job alongside their studies. In a shockingly large number of cases, they end up falling short – not because they aren’t academically gifted, but because, in most cases, they cannot handle the financial pressure or, worse, are never made to feel welcome on campus in the first place. 

It’s not unusual for universities catering predominantly to lower income or minority students to see drop-out rates of 50 per cent or more, a dismal state of affairs variously explained away as a natural by-product of America’s ultra-competitive market in human capital, or as the inevitable consequence of admitting large numbers of students from underprivileged backgrounds. In the conventional wisdom, they are simply doomed to fail in large numbers.

The blunt truth, though, is that these students are being short-changed, in many cases literally. State funding of public universities has been on the wane since the early 1980s, tuition has skyrocketed, and state and federal grants to individual students have been unable to keep up. A parallel decline in the quality of primary and secondary education, meanwhile, has left many of them less prepared for college than in the past – a deficit that few universities feel a responsibility to address. It used to be thought that you could get through college either by working a side job or by taking on debt; now, large numbers of American students are routinely doing both and still dropping like flies long before graduation.

The meritocracy of the system was never perfect. Even in the halcyon decades following the Second World War, when higher education was cheap, plentiful, and boosted by federal legislation from the 1944 GI Bill to the 1958 National Defense Education Act, it still largely excluded non-whites (especially in the segregated South) and the working class.

Now, though, the inequalities have become too glaring and too ubiquitous to ignore. As Richard Reeves wrote in his 2017 book Dream Hoarders, universities not only do not address the growing inequalities of American society, they also magnify them. Universities are, he says, ‘the main mechanism for the reproduction of upper-middle-class status across generations.’

If there is a silver lining, it is a growing recognition of this sobering reality, whether because of moral revulsion at the idea of loading large numbers of lower-income students with debt and sending them away without a degree, or because of a more pragmatic calculation that, in a post-industrial society, most jobs now require some form of post-secondary qualification and universities need to find a way to mint more graduates to meet that demand. 

As far back as the 1990s, a number of large public universities started to recognise the need to reorganise around the needs of students; they weren’t going to survive tighter government budgets if they didn’t retain and graduate more of them. Subsequent events – the tech revolution, the 2008 economic meltdown, the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the parallel rise of an impatient, more ideological right that questions whether education is a public or a private good – only accelerated this push in a new, more efficient direction.

Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, has forged a new sort of university that defines itself by who it includes not, as was the case with most of the institutions jockeying for position in college rankings, by who it excludes. At Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta, a visionary administrator named Tim Renick introduced a string of brilliant programmes that gave lower-income students the support they needed at the exact points they were most in danger of stumbling. Renick, in turn, received invaluable help from his university president, Mark Becker, who made a parallel commitment to putting student achievement first and turning the institution upside down to make sure it happened.

Together, Renick and Becker put money and resources behind a vast data-collection effort that, among other things, enabled academic advisers to predict student outcomes as early as the first semester and quickly redirect those whose initial choice of major did not play to their strengths. Renick and his team also used the data to streamline course plans and to offer no-strings grants to students suffering short-term financial crises at registration time so they stayed enrolled.

The net effect is that, on a campus of more than 30,000 students, individuals still feel nurtured and protected. Any one of more than eight hundred alerts – triggered by a low test grade, say, or an unexplained absence, or a financial issue – can prompt a call from an advisor. Students are deliberately put in cohorts with others sharing similar interests, and they both receive and give peer-to-peer instruction so they are aware of each others’ strengths and weaknesses. Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, when students have been spread far and wide and many campus services have been unavailable, the data system has served to keep them connected and on track.

The results have been staggering. An institution that, before the civil rights era, excluded African American students as a matter of policy now graduates more of them than any other university in the country. Georgia State has eradicated all achievement gaps and dramatically improved its graduation rate, even as it has doubled its enrolment of lower-income students. The entrenched notion that where you come from determines how well you will do is well and truly refuted.

The Georgia State model is now at the forefront of what is widely known as the student success movement. In theory, the model should be easily replicable, because it works on scientific data-driven principles, and on a number of campuses around the country it has been adopted successfully.

For many institutions, though, the idea behind the model has proved too revolutionary – so far. Too many campus leaders talk the talk of ‘antiracism’ and equal opportunity while still tolerating systemic obstacles standing in the way of lower-income and minority students.

Over time, that seems likely to change. Roughly half of all American high schoolers now come from lower-income families, and their thirst for further education enabling them to break into the middle class mirrors the country’s need for skilled labour in new industries from online marketing to biotech and health informatics. At stake is not only the United States’ domestic well-being, but also its ability to compete in a global economy. The meritocratic ideal that inspired the immediate post-war generation may be on the cusp of a long overdue comeback.   

Andrew Gumbel

Andrew Gumbel's latest book is 'Won’t Lose This Dream: How an Upstart Urban University Rewrote the Rules of a Broken System' (The New Press, 2020), about Georgia State University's transformation into an equal-opportunities powerhouse. A British-born journalist based in Los Angeles, Gumbel contributes regularly to The Guardian, among other publications.

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