Racialized Institutional Stratification in the Postwar US Higher Education System

Jared Eno, University of Michigan

The US system of higher education includes schools with vastly unequal resources, helping to produce inequalities between students who are sorted into different institutions (Clotfelter 2017). This institutional stratification order is racialized, as Black and brown students are disproportionately sorted into less-prestigious institutions (Baker et al. 2018, Carnevale and Strohl 2013). School rankings help institutionalize such inequality in the provision of higher education (Espeland and Sauder 2016; Hamilton, Stevens, and Armstrong in progress). This situation echoes that of the period before the 1960s, when African Americans were essentially excluded from higher education outside of historically black colleges and universities. Critical race theorists emphasize how the US system of higher education “is deeply rooted in racism/White supremacy” (Patton 2016, 318), and draw attention to the ways in which racism has taken different forms to fit different historical contexts (e.g., Seamster and Ray 2018, Ferguson 2012). Related work on credit markets shows that classification systems are market infrastructure that can produce different inequality regimes. Fourcade and Healy (2013) distinguish between “boundary classifications” that cleanly enforce categorical distinctions like race and gender (e.g., segregation), and “within-market classifications” that can include different groups and manage them through ordinal classification technologies (e.g., credit scores). Within-market classification systems can include previously-excluded groups on riskier terms than dominant groups—what Seamster and Charron-Chénier (2017) call “predatory inclusion.” Together, these literatures suggest that higher education classification systems may be important mechanisms for shaping racial inequality. This paper investigates the relationship between these classification systems and racialized institutional stratification during and after the 1960s. While graduate program rankings date back to 1925, few publications ranked undergraduate programs until the 1960s. The paper tracks developments in US higher education classification systems and analyzes the changing relationships between the whiteness of student bodies and school prestige.

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 Presented in Session 81. Quantification, Data, and the Politics of Social Provision