The Politics of Class, Race, and Gender: Access to Higher Education in the United States, 1960-1986

David Karen
1991 American Journal of Education  
This article, synthesizing the available (published and unpublished) evidence, describes patterns of inclusion of African-Americans, women, and working-class youth into the system of higher education from 1960 to 1986. Focusing not only on whether access has increased, but on whether these subordinate groups have gained access to elite institutions, this article examines the three groups in and across two periods (1960-76; 1976-86) to highlight differential patterns of access and to suggest a
more » ... and to suggest a plausible explanation involving political mobilization to account for the observed trends. Although the general expansion of the system of higher education since 1960 has led to reduced differentials in access between dominant and subordinate groups, women and blacks-who mobilized-were able to gain access even to elite institutions. Workingclass youth did not experience such gains. A key factor that mediates these benefits of political mobilization is the recognition of the group as an official category in the society's system of classification. Using a variety of data sources, this article shows that, during times of both mobilization and countermobilization, access to particular levels of the higher education hierarchy generally follows the hypothesized directions. Further research that focuses on the precise mechanisms by which political mnobilization produces the observed results is called for. ? 1991 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0195-6744/91/9902-0003$01.00 208 American Journal of Education __ ? _I ?1 r__l Karen mobilization-for the sources of the patterns that I find in my data synthesis. Research on access to higher education in the United States has been conducted, by and large, at the individual level of analysis. Researchers have traditionally been concerned with the probability of a given individual's attending college and with the relative effects of her or his background and ability on that likelihood (see, e.g., Alexander and Eckland 1974; Hearn 1984, in press; Thomas et al. 1979; Werts 1968). More refined analyses of who attends what kind of institution of higher education (see, e.g., Alexander and Eckland 1977; Karabel and Astin 1975; Hearn 1990, in press) and studies of the effect of specific loan or grant programs on a student's probability of college attendance (see, e.g., Leslie and Brinkman 1987; Manski and Wise 1983) also have used the individual as the unit of analysis. In looking at trends in access to higher education, analysts have relied on similar individual-level data collected at two (or more) points in time (see Alexander et al. 1987aAlexander et al. , 1987b Clowes et al. 1986; Peng 1977) . AWhile certainly critical to our deepening knowledge about the process of educational attainment at the individual level and very helpful for our assessment of various social policies, these analyses are less usefil in assessing changes over time in the access of particular social aggregates to higher education. Specifically, these analyses omit the larger demographic patterns that essentially constitute the structure of opportunity for access to higher education and that constrain individual decision making about college entry. To address this situation, I propose to analyze two related yet separate issues about access to higher education. First, I shall examine patterns of access to college from 1960 to 1986 by race, gender, and family background. Since women, blacks, and working-class youth have been relatively underrepresented in higher education, it is appropriate to assess their rates of enrollment during a period in which governmental attention to equality of opportunity has been strong. Further, it is only since 1960 that data collection has been reasonably systematic.' Despite the many studies that have assessed the direct and/or indirect effects of being black, female, or from a lower socioeconomic group on probability of attending college, there does not exist a useful synthesis of the demographic evidence. DAVID KAREN is an assistant professor of sociology at Bryn Mawr College. He is currently involved in research on the gatekeeping process at elite colleges. February 1991 209 The Politics of Access to Higher Education Second, since returns to higher education differ by the type of institution one attends2 (see Dougherty 1987; Karabel and McClelland 1987; Brint and Karabel 1989; Smart 1986; Useem and Karabel 1986), it is important to examine who attends what kinds of institutions. If equalizing opportunity is an important goal, then it would be critical to scrutinize the distribution of groups in the different sectors of higher education. For if subordinate groups were disproportionately found in those institutions that yielded the smallest returns, then the appearance of equality of opportunity (with respect simply to college access) would mask significant differences in the likely eventual career trajectories of these students.3 If students from subordinate groups were disproportionately concentrated in the lowest tier of the system, their relative position in the social structure would be maintaineddespite the sacrifices that they will have made to attend college and despite the real increase in educational mobility from generation to generation. Similarly, if they were relatively excluded from elite sectors of the higher education hierarchy, then the benefits that accrue from attendance at prestigious institutions-in terms of contacts, cultural refinement, and access to elite occupational sectors-would be less available to those from subordinate groups. In assessing equality of opportunity for access to higher education, one must take account as well of the likely destinations of subordinate groups within higher education. To anticipate the tentative explanation that I shall offer below, I argue that subordinate groups that mobilized politically, namely, women and blacks, were able to increase their representation not only in higher education generally but even in those institutions that heightened one's probability of gaining access to elite occupational sectors. Workingclass students, who did not mobilize, were able to increase their access to college-primarily because of the absolute number of places that opened up-but were not able to gain access to the top colleges. A key mechanism leading to this outcome is that blacks and women have been recognized as official social categories by elite colleges in ways that working-class students have not. Between 1976 and the present, an era that I characterize as one of "countermobilization," black enrollments have declined, women's enrollments have continued to increase, and working-class enrollments have remained relatively constant. Ultimately, 1 argue that this pattern is largely consistent with the explanation that 1 develop with respect to the initial political mobilization. The methodological basis for this argument is that I compare three groups in and across two periods (1960-76; 1976-86) in an attempt to tease out the differences and commonalities in the patterns of access to higher education. Although the data used in this article do not 210 American Journal of Education Karen 228 American Journal of Education Karen prehensive, general baccalaureate, etc.) to the way that race/ethnicity is categorized. In dealing with these problems I have attempted to give "best estimates" from the available data. In general, as will become obvious, I relied on multiple sources to examine the trends in enrollments; if the results agreed, 1 took this as confirmation of the observed trend. In some cases, I use data that are less than perfect (such as the enrollment data by institution for the 1960s and early 1970s, which 1 aggregate to "Ivy League" or "prestigious colleges") but seem to serve well as "reasonable estimates." 2. These returns may be of different kinds. The evidence suggests that different kinds of colleges may yield returns in the form of more years of education, different probabilities of a lucrative college major, and direct economic payoffs. 3. Following Parkin (1979), I am using the term "subordinate groups" to refer to those who are excluded from a set of resources over which there are struggles; in this article, women, racial/ethnic minorities, and those who are working-class/blue-collar/lower class/low socioeconomic status (SES) are the relevant groups. The lack of specificity for the working-class group is a function of the varied designations used in the collection of statistics and in the sociological literature. While gender and race/ethnicity have emerged as official categories, social class has not; advances in access to various resources follow this pattern of official group recognition that usually follows the group's constitution of itself, through political mobilization, as a social category to be reckoned with. For further discussion of the process of group formation and the emergence and effects of official recognition, see Przeworski (1977), Bourdieu (1984), and Karen (1990). 4. For our purposes, this is a not unreasonable assumption, as between 1967 and 1985, enrollment of 18-24-year-olds in college as a percentage of high school graduates varied by no more than four percentage points (see U.S. Department of Education 1988a, p. 174). 5. These data, collected in Current Population Reports, are reported in U.S. Department of Education (1988c). It should be noted that these rates reflect educational attainment rather than the rates at which 17-year-olds finish high school. Thus, those who complete high school through the armed forces, General Equivalency Diploma, etc. are included in these figures. That these rates are for 25-29-year-olds means that they underestimate the gains of 17year-olds during these years. Also, it should be noted that the 1960 figure for blacks is for blacks and other races; the 1975 figure is for blacks only. 6. These figures are based on unpublished tabulations done by the Census Bureau. The figures are based on the reports of the 25-34-and 35-44-yearold cohorts. While there are certainly problems with this procedure (overreporting, underreporting, subsequent completions), it will underestimate the differences in attainment between the top and bottom of the class structure. Since we are interested in whether these differences decreased over time, we are thus conservatively estimating these changes over time. 7. These figures include enrollment in "outlving areas," such as Canal Zone. Guam, etc. (American Council on Education 1987, p. 58). 8. It is noteworthy-in the context of our anticipated argument about political mobilization and official categories-that data on black enrollments in the early 1960s are difficult to obtain, as the census reports data only for "nonwhites." It was only after the civil rights movement had actually exerted effects that "black" emerged as an official social category and systematic data February 1991 229 American Journal of Edlucation Karen access, however, political mobilization had to attack traditional exclusionary criteria such as standardized tests. Thus, during a period of countermobilization, when traditional selection criteria are reasserted, blacks would be affected much more than would women. References Alexander, Karl L., and Bruce K. Eckland. "Sex Differences in the Educational Attainment Process." American Sociological Review 29 (1974): 565-75. Alexander, Karl L., and Bruce K. Eckland. "High School Context and College Selectivity." Social Forces 56 (1977): 166-88.
doi:10.1086/443979 fatcat:2bti5iclw5hvxcsldhpa2fghzi