America likes to think of itself as a country where the doors to college are open to all, where anyone can earn a bachelor’s degree through hard work and academic merit, and where public support for higher education is unwavering. Reality belies the vision.

The doors are wide open for the privileged, but opportunity narrows considerably for the less fortunate. The bachelor’s is eminently reachable for those who stick with their studies — indeed, the master’s degree is coming into vogue for many — but huge numbers of promising students who start college don’t finish.

What about public support? The synergy between federal and state governments that propelled the phenomenal expansion of higher education in the 19th and 20th centuries has all but vanished, Suzanne Mettler writes in her provocative new book, “Degrees of Inequality.” The Cornell University political scientist argues that this drift in public policy over the past quarter-century — in Washington and in statehouses — has exacerbated gaps between the haves and the have-nots, undermining the ideal of college as an engine of upward social mobility.

For much of the nation’s history, government actions reinforced the ideal. Consider the land-grant acts of 1862 and 1890, which helped launch many public universities (as well as private ones such as Cornell and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology); the G.I. Bill to subsidize tuition for returning World War II veterans; the postwar boom of federal funding for university research; and the creation of what became known as Pell grants for needy students in 1972. These far-reaching acts of Congress, in tandem with aggressive state backing of public flagship universities, regional universities and community colleges, helped make U.S. higher education the envy of the world. It wasn’t just the prestige of Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

Mettler calls the period from 1960 to 1980 “the zenith of mass public higher education.” She is probably right. Those were boom years for community colleges and public universities across the country, epitomized by California’s famous 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education. Among many public institutions founded in the 1960s were the University of Maryland Baltimore County and Northern Virginia Community College. In the 1970s George Mason University broke away from the University of Virginia, establishing itself as a vital public force in Northern Virginia, and the University of the District of Columbia was born from a three-school merger.

‘Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream’ by Suzanne Mettle (Basic)

What happened after 1980? The nation took a conservative turn that year with the landslide election of Ronald Reagan as president. Federal student aid budgets came under scrutiny. Anti-tax fervor in the states helped squeeze spending on higher education.

These stories are well known, but Mettler makes another point that is less obvious. “The problem,” she writes, “is not that landmark policies were terminated or abandoned; to the contrary, they remained intact but required maintenance and updating.” The rise of partisan polarization hindered that quiet but crucial work. Mettler’s conclusion: Congressional paralysis takes an especially heavy toll on higher education because colleges and universities cannot grow and prosper without effective federal support.

Here it is evident that Mettler’s book is more for wonks than for a general audience. She delves into the saga of federal student loans, Pell grants and various iterations of the G.I. Bill. She questions the effectiveness of tuition tax credits. And she identifies a turning point in the early 1990s, when Republicans emerged as champions of bank-based federal student loans and Democrats as backers of direct government lending. Republicans said the bank-based system provided consumers with better service and more choices. Democrats said direct lending saved taxpayers money. In her recounting of this history, it is apparent that Mettler’s sympathies usually lie with Democrats, though she notes that President George W. Bush, a Republican, signed a major student-aid bill into law in 2007.

Mettler also critiques a bipartisan alliance in Washington that facilitated the rise of for-profit colleges in the late 1990s and early 2000s — a sector of higher education that has drawn criticism for leaving many students with debts they can’t repay. She argues that the industry’s expansion, fueled by federal student aid, is a result of misplaced federal priorities. Republicans and some influential Democrats say that for-profit colleges fill a legitimate need, but Mettler contends that the interests of businesses that spend heavily on lobbying and campaign donations trump those of ordinary students. She also points out that The Washington Post Co. played a role in the industry as owner of the Kaplan for-profit education network. Last year founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos bought The Washington Post, but not Kaplan. The newspaper and Kaplan are no longer affiliated.

Another turning point, Mettler writes, came when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. Early in his first term, Obama and his Democratic allies muscled through Congress a major expansion of Pell grants and an overhaul of federal student lending that cut what critics called wasteful subsidies to banks. Then the Republican takeover of the House in 2011 curtailed Obama’s legislative ambitions.

Still, the president often speaks of his desire to erase inequalities of opportunity. In January, Obama recited stark statistics at a White House summit of college leaders: Just 30 percent of low-income students enroll in college right after high school. Worse, the president said, only 9 percent earn a bachelor’s degree by their mid-20s. “There is this huge cohort of talent that we’re not tapping,” he said. The fault lies in part with colleges, including the most elite. Some try hard to recruit more Pell grant students and help them succeed. Many don’t.

Mettler laments state disinvestment from universities, a privatization trend that raised the tuition burden for students who can least afford it. One telling chart in her book shows that for the lowest-earning quintile of Americans, the share of family income required to cover the cost of attending a public four-year college in 1971 was 42 percent. In 2011 it was 114 percent.

That statistical divide raises questions about the public stake in higher education at a time of widespread concern about the rising cost of college. It may be hyperbole to say, as Mettler does in her subtitle, that politics has “sabotaged the American dream.” But it’s fair to ask: What are political leaders doing to promote that dream?

Nick Anderson covers higher education for The Washington Post.


How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream

By Suzanne Mettler

Basic. 261 pp. $27.99

Nick Anderson covers higher education for The Washington Post. He has been a writer and editor at The Post since 2005.