In the UK and US the growth of social and economic inequality is taking place in societies in which formal participation in higher education is at an historic high. Is higher education then responsible for the pattern of unequal earnings?
If education produces human capital, which determines marginal productivity, and that determines wages – remember that this is the core of rates-of-return analysis – then the quantity and quality of higher education is responsible for growing income inequality.
But income inequality in the United States is now as high as in any country in modern history. Is it really the case that inequality of individual skills and productivities is greater in the United States today than in apartheid South Africa of the recent past? If that were the case, it would be bad indeed for US educational institutions. However, though US education can certainly be improved and made more open to the population, it is not as bad as this suggests.
The problem is that the theory of marginal productivity, human capital theory, is unable to explain striking variations in graduate incomes over time, as well as differences between earnings, and patterns of income distribution, in countries whose higher education is relatively similar. <Read more.>