Urban Wire Are research universities our best tool against rising inequality?
Robert Abare
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The problem is clear: gains in wealth and income over the past few decades have primarily benefited those in the top income brackets. How to address this problem, however, is far more complicated.

Research universities could be a large part of the answer, explained Rebecca Blank, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, at the 2018 Paul Offner Lecture. Hosted by the Urban Institute and the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the lecture honors the late Paul Offner, a Wisconsin state senator, adviser to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, professor at Georgetown University, and scholar at the Urban Institute.

“There is no single institution in the country that is more important to economic growth than research universities,” Blank said in her presentation. “In certain crowds, I would argue that it’s public research universities.”

Blank pointed to two factors critical to economic growth that research universities help support:

  1. A skilled workforce. “Universities, more than anything else, provide skills and produce workers who have them,” Blank explained.   
  2. Technology and innovation. As Blank put it, “Research universities are essential in keeping the United States on the cutting edge in this area.”

But Blank noted that while economic growth is important for shared prosperity, it might not be the only important metric. “We want the benefits of economic growth to be experienced broadly,” she said.

“Almost all of the economic growth seems to be going to people at the top of the income brackets,” Blank noted. “People with more skills have gone up in income, people with less skills have lost out. Less skilled jobs have also been outsourced to other countries.”

To improve the economy, improve workers’ skills

A sure, albeit slow, avenue to boost economic mobility, explained Blank, is to improve workers’ skill sets. “If we raise skill levels, it would not only help those gaining higher skills,” she said. “Evidence shows that high-productivity firms, or firms with a highly skilled workforce, pay everyone in the company more.”

Research universities might be the best avenue to help workers gain advanced skills. But many argue that not everyone who attends a research university will benefit from it. To help research universities better help students and transfer skills, Blank pointed to four important factors:

  1. Access and affordability. A major obstacle to helping students pay for their education, Blank noted, is the complexity of eligibility requirements for many financial aid programs. Bucky’s Tuition Promise at the University of Wisconsin–Madison covers all tuition and fees for those admitted and with family income in the bottom half of the income bracket in Wisconsin. “The simplicity of that message really resonates,” said Blank, while noting that some obstacles like applying and paying for other expenses remain.
  2. Quality of teaching and curricular coherence. The University of Wisconsin–Madison found that many students who failed to graduate on time weren’t aware of all their course requirements or took classes out of order. “Improving that system is particularly important for low-income and first-generation students,” said Blank.
  3. Quality and availability of counseling. Blank said this area is particularly important for liberal arts students, who often don’t go on to careers in English or math (for instance) and who may need extra help finding a career in which they can apply their degree.
  4. Support from family and friends. Though this support is important for any student, Blank said administrators have few policy levers to pull in this area. But focusing on helping first-generation students navigate college life away from their families should be a major focus.

Or are research universities contributing to inequality?

In a question for Blank, president of the Urban Institute Sarah Rosen Wartell quoted Eduardo J. Padrón, president of Miami Dade College: “Talent is universal, opportunity is not. Colleges and universities have a choice: they can be either incubators of talent and innovation or engines of inequality.”

Blank agreed that universities can contribute to rising inequality, considering that higher skills lead to higher incomes among the college educated. “There’s no question in today’s world that those who have more income to invest in their children are more likely to get their children into college.”

“On the other hand, I will note that we were founded on the idea that everyone should have access to higher education,” Blank said. “One of the revolutionary ideas of the Morell Act, signed by Abraham Lincoln to establish land-grant universities, was that we should have universities subsidized by the state that anyone can attend, and indeed we have played that role for generations.

“We have to claim that history and make sure that we continue it. We must figure out a financial model that lets us continue to be accessible.”


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Research Areas Education Workforce
Tags Workforce development Wealth inequality Job training Mobility Income and wealth distribution
Policy Centers Center on Education Data and Policy