Recent Book Reads: Econ of Ed and Race, Spring 2019

Here are some things I’ve read or am reading recently (somewhat) related to my research topic, that I have really enjoyed. I’m calling it Econ of Ed even though these are all written by sociologists (and one journalist), but this just speaks to the point that if economists really want to understand inequality behind the numbers, read sociology!

The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students by Anthony Abraham Jack

What an informative, critical, and cathartic read for me (as a #firstgen). Jack follows a group of students at an elite college coming from distinctly different backgrounds and educational experiences: the upper-income students, lower-income students who attended a private or elite high school, and lower-income students from less resourced schooling backgrounds (the “doubly disadvantaged”). For anyone wanting to understand the transmission of inequality, even in the empirical “best” of circumstances”, this is a must-read and illuminates so many flaws in our higher ed system. Read Jack’s take on the admissions scandal as well.

Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy  by Tressie McMillan Cottom

I can’t rave about this book, this author, and her writing enough. Tressie McMillan Cottom is a force. I actually read this when it first came out a year or so ago. McMillan Cottom shows us how for-profit institutions exacerbate inequality by preying on the marginalized. A lot of the findings of this book also speak to issues of credentialization outlined in this Roosevelt Institute report on student debt. On a personal note, I felt very validated as a budding economist reading this book, since a few years ago I recall noting in the NCES data the startling racial and gender segmentation in the for-profit sector (think trade schools vs. cosmetology and nursing assistants).

Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side by Eve L. Ewing

Again, a force of a writer! In the depths of my imposter syndrome, I often forget why studying public schools is important. Not just important, but should be at the forefront of any progressive research agenda. Ewing reminds me in discussing why it matters to study Chicago’s school closings: “The people of Bronzeville understand that a school is more than a school. A school is the site of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city. A school is a safe place to be. A school is a place where you find family. A school is a home.” (155-6) Alongside preserving history, family, community, and home, schools are a massive and formative interaction that we all have with the state, and one we still feel ownership over. Schools hold the possibility of a space of progressive transformation.

The Warm of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

I’m still only a small bit through this one, but it goes beyond “epic”. Here are some reviews from NYTimes and the New Yorker. I really look forward to finishing this one.

Thick and Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Okay, this isn’t really economics or dissertation related at all, but everyone should read this if you want to understand racism, inequality, capitalism, patriarchy, and so on and so on. Here’s an emotional and painful excerpt on her experience with medical racism.

That’s all for now. What else should I read?

Taxing College Endowments

Here in Massachusetts, Democratic candidate for governor Jay Gonzalez proposed taxing college and university endowments exceeding $1 billion. This position is brewing backlash from many in higher education who see the proposal as unfair to schools who use these endowments for financial aid and scholarships.

Indeed, many elite colleges and universities are able to use their wealth to nearly eliminate reliance on student debt for their students, however they serve a much smaller number of students, especially in-state students. My own research on student debt found that Massachusetts’s public college and university students, which educate the majority of in-state students, are in fact much more likely to have student debt than their counterparts at wealth, elite institutions (it should be noted that while Massachusetts is home to some of the wealthiest private institutions, the private institution landscape also has vast inequality between wealth, elite schools and those with very limited wealth, high price-tags, and heavy reliance on student debt).

Data Source: Delta Cost Project Database.

Average Percentage of Students with Debt
Academic Year MA Public Colleges MA Private Colleges
2000 59.00 61.33
2001 54.20 62.67
2002 53.00 47.50
2003 54.00 52.50
2004 59.18 53.00
2005 61.64 44.50
2006 61.80 43.00
2007 64.50 55.00
2008 64.90 60.00
2009 71.56 91.00
2010 73.10 66.00

In this research, I had also found a pretty clear correlation between high-debt and in-state enrollment. A fairer tax on endowment wealth could help redistribute that wealth to aid in-state students, and reduce debt loads.


For this reason, public higher education advocates in the state support the Endowment Tax idea as a good start to more equitable funding for public higher education.