How Colleges Can Again Be Levelers of SocietyThe word "Again" carries a lot of assumptions about the past. Education has certainly had a leveling effect, e.g. via mass literacy. Colleges and universities, on the other hand, have usually not been levelers in US history. The major exception was from the aftermath of WWII and the GI Bill through the college educations of the Baby Boomers. This corresponded to three unique circumstances:
- An influx of young men (and some women, e.g. my grandmother) who had spent several years subject to extraordinary levels of discipline (i.e. people with some pretty unusual preparation and maturity).
- An era in which the US enjoyed unrivaled advantages in the international marketplace because much of the world had suffered huge infrastructure losses and a lot of places had decided to try the most inefficient economic system ever invented. This was also the era of extraordinarily good factory jobs. We were the global leader. We could be good at anything because we had a unique economic perch. I am less than convinced that we can get back to that era now.
- An influx of "low-hanging fruit". When most of your population has not been sending people to college, there's going to be plenty of talent out there to identify and admit. When a larger proportion of your population is in college, finding the remaining suitable talents is going to be harder. With such people being thin on the ground, your remaining options are to either lower standards or else commit extraordinary resources to helping the poorly-prepared succeed. The later one sounds noble, and it gets a lot of praise, but it runs up against such trifling things as the limitations of human ability and the fact that the same people who pay lip service to success also want speedy graduation and minimal costs. Extraordinary assistant means extraordinary resources.
Naturally, being an NYT Education article, they gloss over that.
They do lament that it's hard to get colleges to admit and support students who can't pay full tuition, because such students are expensive to support:
Colleges that enroll the highest percentage of low-income students are need-blind, which means they make admissions decisions without considering ability to pay. They offer enough financial aid to completely close the gap between the cost of college and what a student’s family can pay. And they actively recruit low-income students.
Stephen Burd, a senior policy analyst at New America, a public policy institute, said that between 20 and 25 private schools and many public colleges do all three things, among them many Ivies, Stanford and small colleges like Pomona, Wellesley and Amherst (another leader in educating low-income students).
The vast majority of colleges don’t. Enrolling poor students is costly, especially because each scholarship student will take the place of someone who could pay in full. The financial crisis of 2008 sliced into endowments. States are cutting public schools’ budgets.
In addition, the money colleges do have increasingly goes to students who don’t need it. Private colleges engage in bidding wars for talented wealthy students. Burd writes that the same thing is happening at public colleges, where tuition is higher for out-of-state students, and bidding wars for them gobble up a growing percentage of aid. While this crowds out low-income students, and many colleges say they would like to stop, they do not because their competitors are still doing it.Well, yes. Offering financial aid means spending money. That's how it works. There's no magical unicorn who will shit gold bricks out its behind. Fortunately, the NYT has identified a way to get around this problem!
“Every incentive these days is to not get low-income students,” said Burd. “It takes a huge personal commitment from a leader. The only thing driving it is their conscience.”Oh, so that's all it takes: A triumph of the will!
Now, this prescription was offered after profiling efforts to broaden admissions and access at Vassar. According to a NYT article from two years ago, Vassar has an endowment of $340,000 per student. If we assumed a 4% return, to be a bit modest, that's $13,600 per student per year. With a full cost of attendance estimated at $65,000/year, they could give a full ride to 20% of their student body. Not every college can say the same.
I eagerly await the day that the NYT tries to make a point about higher education without restricting its attention to elite places with hefty endowments.