By Anthony P. Carnevale, Peter Schmidt and Jeff Strohl
AFP via Getty Images
Our nation has been left vulnerable to the economic and health crises brought on by coronavirus because of a pre-existing condition: the deep economic and social divide that results from disparities in access to quality higher education.
On one side are those born on an elite track who go to top schools; on the other are those who are often tracked into college dropout factories or, even worse, don’t go to college at all.
We need to overhaul a system that perpetuates the gilded class and bars the door to almost everyone else. We can do this by transforming who goes to top colleges, the way universities are funded, and how they distribute financial aid.
Last year, the top 25 universities had a collective endowment of about $330 billion. That kind of money enables them to lavish attention and resources on students. Princeton University, with an endowment of an astonishing $3 million per full-time student, spends about $90,000 per year on each of them.
Far from striving to educate the masses, such colleges build their brands on prestige derived from low acceptance rates and from the perception that graduating from them leaves students set for life. Many foster this perception by favoring applicants who are the children of alumni or otherwise come from families with cash and connections. At some elite colleges, more than half of the student body comes from the wealthiest 5% of families.
Meanwhile, low-income students, disproportionately black or Hispanic, are relegated to the outside track. These students are substantially less likely than students from more privileged backgrounds to attend college at all. Those who do enroll generally end up at non-selective public colleges that spend, on average, only about $6,000 per year per student on instructional and academic support.
The difference in resources leads to wildly divergent results. Among all students who score above average on standardized entrance exams, 81 percent who attend a selective college will graduate, but only 52% who attend an open-access college will ever get a degree. This is a big reason why just 20% of black and 18% of Hispanic students who attend college ever earn a bachelor’s degree, compared to 40% of white college attendees.
The COVID-19 crash has upended business-as-usual for colleges, threatening their enrollments and cutting them off from key sources of revenue such as room and board, events and athletics, and full-tuition-paying foreign students who may not come because of safety fears and visa issues. States can be expected to slash spending on public colleges to plug budget gaps. Colleges are receiving a total of $14 billion in federal emergency relief, but several college associations argue that it will take $50 billion in federal assistance for colleges and their students to weather this.
Even with all colleges forced to rethink how they do business, we cannot expect selective colleges to do more to promote social mobility. So policy makers will likely have to make them change their ways.
Taxpayers have a stake in all colleges—including private ones, which receive millions of dollars in federal grants, enjoy tax-deductible status on all property and gifts, and enroll students who use more than $24 billion in federally-guaranteed student loans and grants each year. The government should use selective colleges’ sudden pleas for a big infusion of public dollars as an opportunity to force them to share their quality education with a broader cross-section of Americans rather than reserving it primarily for the privileged few. Washington and the states should also redirect educational spending toward the colleges and students on outside tracks.
Here are some ways we can get there:
Eliminate admissions preferences for privileged populations. We must deter selective colleges from giving admissions preferences to legacies and applicants connected to rich donors, powerful politicians, and the children of administrators and faculty members. Yes, some of the students admitted through such backdoor channels are highly qualified, but their families’ hoarding of seats at selective colleges thwarts social mobility and widens and perpetuates social divisions by leaving the high-achieving children of the less-fortunate scrapping over an artificially limited number of open seats.
Public support for selective colleges should be tied to their willingness to make transparency, integrity, and fairness the guiding principles of their admissions processes and abandon admissions practices that are secretive, dishonest, and biased.
Current practice allows wealthy people to make large payments to a college to obtain something of value—the admission of an applicant with borderline qualifications—and then write off the money exchanged as a charitable donation. Stricter interpretation and enforcement of tax codes would stop that.