Abstract: Barely half of American college students earn a bachelor’s degree or higher credential within six years of starting college. Many public commentators and academics call this “college dropout” and associate it with recent changes, especially less state funding for public universities and more student debt. In contrast, sociologists of education have long argued that inequality is an enduring characteristic of higher education, maintained by entrenched “sort and sieve” processes that apportion outcomes to family background. In an analysis of students who graduated from high school in 1982, 1992, and 2004, we found only small changes in six-year graduation rates, that is, graduation through 1988, 1998, and 2010. Contrary to popular speculation, socioeconomic and racial disparities in college completion were just as high recently as in 1988. The only notable change concerned the potential disadvantage of starting post-secondary education at a two-year community college instead of at a college or university that offers four year degrees. That disadvantage declined after the 1980s. Our analysis of mediating factors points to persistent aspects of academic sorting, not recent changes, are the root of America’s inequality of opportunity within higher education.
This event is part of the Sociology Seminar Series.