Consolidation of Class Advantages in the Wake of the Great Recession: University Enrollments, Educational Opportunity and Stratification

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Most U.S. universities have made explicit commitments to educating economically diverse student bodies; however, the higher education system is highly stratified. In this paper, we seek to understand stratification in the wake of the Great Recession by examining enrollment among students from differing income backgrounds by institutional type. Two theoretical frameworks suggest different conclusions. A Disaster Capitalism framework suggests that in places where the recession was most severe, enrollment by income would become more stratified than in places where the downturn was less severe. In contrast, Effectively Maintained Inequality would suggest that enrollments were already effectively stratified by income and would not necessarily be sensitive to exposure to an economic shock. Employing fixed effects modeling and novel data based on the tax records of 30 million Americans, we examine income composition by institutional type from 2004 to 2012. We find that although stratification by institutional type worsened during the recession and subsequent recovery, patterns of economic stratification were not more intense for institutions that enrolled students from states hardest hit by the recession. We conclude that these patterns are consistent with an Effectively Maintained Inequality framework. During the recession, the top quintiles continued to enjoy their longstanding disproportionate enrollment in the most selective institutions. For the bottom quintiles, the longstanding marginalization from 4-year college going persisted through the recession. These stratification patterns, however, were not more pronounced in places hardest hit by the recession.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)915-941
Number of pages27
JournalResearch in Higher Education
Issue number7
StatePublished - Nov 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Education


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