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We know that there are huge inequalities in prospects along many dimensions (health, wealth and well-being) between those who have a college degree and those who do not have a college degree. Moreover, there are noticeable inequalities between those who have college degrees from elite institutions and those who have college degrees from other institutions. Access to college and elite college degree programs is thus highly consequential and access should be determined fairly.

Debates about Equality of Opportunity in higher education focus not only on the under-representation of certain groups, such as racial minorities and the poor, but also on inequalities in drop-out rates and inequalities between those applying to elite institutions in the first place. These inequalities may be symptoms of deeper social problems, such as wealth inequality and racism, that are not caused by the system of higher education. Nevertheless, higher education may have an essential role in the best solution to these social problems, controlling, as it does, access to elite positions of power and effecting the representation of minorities in those positions that may influence aspiration levels amongst members of disadvantaged groups.

One of the more controversial reforms associated with higher education and Equality of Opportunity is affirmative action, which reserves preferential treatment, and even quotas, for historically disadvantaged groups. This can lead to the complaint that merit, and not race or class, is the only relevant criterion for selecting college applicants and can lead to the stigmatization of members of those groups who do attend college as not deserving of their place. However, this is to forget that opportunities to develop merit are themselves unfairly distributed between groups historically. Notwithstanding this response, affirmative action remains a controversial response to a very difficult social problem.


Anderson, Elizabeth S. “The Democratic University: The Role Of Justice In The Production Of Knowledge”. Social Philosophy And Policy, Social Philosophy and Policy, 12, no. 02 (1995): 186-219.

Notes: The paper defends a view of how the university, understood as a social institution, should be composed and reformed with reference to freedom of speech and democracy, which will reinforce relations of equality between inquirers and considers rival models.

Bowen, William G, Derek Bok, and Glenn C Loury. The Shape Of The River. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Notes: This book focuses on the role that race plays in college admissions in the US. The book explains the role that race plays in admissions and the effect that it has on students and contributes to debates about affirmative action.

Bowen, William G, Matthew M Chingos, and Michael S McPherson. Crossing The Finish Line: Completing College At America's Public Universities.. Princeton University Press, 2009.

Notes: The book provides a detailed empirical analysis of the difficulties and inequalities of completion of college in the USA. The study finds that minority students and students from poor backgrounds are much less likely to graduate. The authors argue for improved transfer policies and financial aid noting that these are obstacles to graduation for those disadvantaged groups.

Dworkin, Ronald. Sovereign Virtue: The Theory And Practice Of Equality. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Notes: This chapter defends affirmative action on forward-looking grounds rather than compensatory grounds. It also argues that affirmative action is not unfair to whites.

Guinier, Lani. The Tyranny Of The Meritocracy. Beacon Press, n.d.

Notes: This book addresses the way that the idea of merit has been miss-applied in the context of higher education. In particular, Guinier examines the way that conventional measures of merit do not predict performance, but do track race and social class, and that beneficiaries of Affirmative Action do out-perform their peers.

Liu, Goodwin. “Affirmative Action In Higher Education: The Diversity Rationale And The Compelling Interest Test”. Harv. Cr-Cll Rev, Harv. CR-CLL Rev., 33 (1998): 381.

Notes: This paper argues that diversity norms are of ‘compelling interest’ and that this can justify affirmative action by appeal to the US constitution.