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Matthew Green: Make ‘U’ economically diverse

By Matthew Green, Daily Opinion Columnist
Published November 14, 2011

Remember those questionnaires we filled out during freshman orientation? Each year, the University’s Division of Student Affairs compiles the data from those forms and publishes the results online. Perusing the report is fascinating, to say the least. In addition to offering a standard demographic profile of each graduating class, the report includes findings on students’ political views, future plans and even self-image. Apparently, 76.9 percent of University students responded in 2009 that it was essential or very important to them to be “very well off financially.” This is a completely understandable desire, of course, particularly for incoming freshmen accustomed to the comforts and luxuries their parents had lavished on them up until that point.

But exactly how comfortable and pampered are these students? The questionnaire data hints at an answer.

For the class of 2013 (the most recent class for which data is published), 84.4 percent of students reported parental income above $50,000 a year. More students reported an annual family income of over $250,000 (16.9 percent) than below $50,000 (15.6 percent). Keep in mind that according to the 2010 U.S. Census, more than half of all Michigan residents make less than $50,000 each year. Given their relative affluence, it’s no wonder that such a high percentage of University students would expect a modicum of economic success.

Intriguingly, about 50 percent of students reported that their fathers were doctors, lawyers, engineers, executives or business owners. And more than 75 percent of their parents went to college, compared to the 27.5 percent of American adults who did according to The Chronicle of Higher Education in January 2011.

Reading this, you’re probably unsurprised. Affluent parents have long sent their children to the best schools their money could buy. It’s hardly newsworthy that an elite school would cater to a moneyed clientele. Mere mention of Harvard and Yale conjures images of wealth and status as much as it does academic prestige.

But Harvard and Yale, as well as other prestigious institutions, have begun to address their historic social exclusivity. According to Harvard's office of financial aid, "families with incomes currently below $60,000 are not expected to contribute to college costs." Period. Yale and Princeton, in addition to Harvard, recently re-examined their early-admission processes to ensure that the process didn't unfairly favor well-heeled applicants.

These actions may not have solved the problem of wealth inequality on college campuses, but they’ve at least started an administrative dialogue about making higher education more socially equitable. Against a backdrop of continually rising income inequality, perhaps it’s time for the University to seriously address the disparity between the rich and poor as reflected by its student body. More than any Ivy League institution, the University of Michigan has an imperative as a flagship public school to live up to its responsibility to serve the public good.

How can the University claim a commitment to diversity with a demographic profile as homogenously affluent as ours?

The University can foster more economic diversity in a variety of ways. Most obviously, the administration could think twice the next time a tuition increase is on the table. According to a May 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center where a nationally representative sample of 2,142 adults ages 18 and older were surveyed, 48 percent of 18 to 34 year olds who hadn’t gone to college said they didn’t go because they couldn’t afford it. Financial aid is also part of the solution. Perhaps the University should follow Harvard’s lead, offering more sweeping financial aid packages to low-income students. That’d be expensive, sure. But at $6.5 billion, the University of Michigan's endowment is greater than the GNP of Nicaragua. I think we can afford it.

To its credit, the University already takes into consideration the economic background of applicants each fall. It awards points to students if they’re from an economically depressed region or if they attended an underprivileged high school. But as progressive and important as these considerations may be, they clearly aren’t doing enough. The University must do a better job of reaching out to disadvantaged high school students before the application process even begins.

As the Occupy Wall Street movement decries the unequal influence of the wealthiest few, it’s worth calling attention to the channels through which they attained their power and fortune. Many of them surely funneled through the nation’s most elite colleges. In the parlance of OWS, the University needs to take a firmer stance in support of educating the 99 percent.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make a decent living, as the data shows that many University students do. It’s part of the American dream, after all, and young people across the socioeconomic spectrum likely share this aspiration. It’s the University’s responsibility to ensure that this goal can be met by the genuine Leaders and Best — not just the already wealthy and well connected.

Matthew Green can be reached at greenmat@umich.edu.

Clarification:This column used the 2010 fiscal year endowment figure.


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