In 2011, Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler highlighted poll results showing a striking phenomenon: About half of the Americans receiving federal assistance in paying college tuition or medical bills believe they have never benefited from a government social program. The results are evidence of what Mettler has termed “the submerged state”—a series of policies, like tuition tax credits or federally-guaranteed student loans, that are practically invisible to citizens. That invisibility, she argues, erodes public support for the very idea of government playing an active role in people’s lives.
Now in a new book, Degrees of Inequality, Mettler reveals how, over the past 60 years, American higher-education policy has gone from being visible and effective (the GI Bill and the Pell grant program) to being invisible and inefficient ($32 billion in federal funding for for-profit colleges with abysmal graduation rates). Congressional polarization along party lines, it turns out, played a major role, as did plummeting federal and state support for four-year public universities.