This paper examines how the process of making higher education choices in the United States—whether to enter higher education, attend a particular college, or follow a particular route—reproduces and legitimates social inequality. The paper’s central thesis is that a societal regime of many choices—while widely seen as serving individual freedom and producing social well-being—actually builds on and extends societal inequality but in a way that obscures that process of social reproduction to virtually all who participate in that regime.
As the paper argues, the provision of many choices produces social inequality. People often make choices that do not serve their interests as well as they might wish, particularly if students are faced with many choices and do not have adequate information.
Secondly, the incidence of those suboptimal choices is not random but is socially stratified. It is higher for less advantaged people, and societal factors—such as the unequal distribution of economic resources, unequal provision of good information, and unequal exposure to discrimination—play a crucial role in producing those socially stratified suboptimal choices.
Finally, the provision of many choices legitimates social inequality. The more one thinks in terms of choices, the more one tends to blame the unfortunate, including oneself, for their circumstances. Seemingly offered many choices in life, both the winners and losers in society come to feel that much of the inequality they experience is due to their own actions and therefore is legitimate.
The paper concludes by offering various prescriptions for reducing the socially stratifying consequences and ideological impacts of a high-choice regime. In making these arguments, this paper draws on the research literature in sociology of education, behavioral economics, and social psychology of inequality.