The University of Michigan is an incredibly selective university and prestigious enough to land on many high school students’ “reach lists.” Our endowment is massive, standing at $17 billion as of 2021, the highest of any public university in the country. We are constantly rated in the top five public universities in the country, by the U.S. News & World Report and beyond. There are many reasons the University is so successful as an institution, but the amount of wealth that researchers and administrators have access to cannot be understated.
I come from a very privileged background. I grew up in Birmingham, Mich., one of the wealthiest suburbs in Metro Detroit. The fact that my father could send two kids to college is a testament to the inherent advantages I received by proxy of merit that isn’t mine. In contrast, one of my roommates is currently receiving financial aid from the University. He’s one of the few Hawaiians on campus, and he has been involved in multiple organizations working towards increased visibility for Asian-American/Pacific Islander (emphasis on the PI) people on campus. He’s from Jackson, Mich., a less affluent area than where I come from. He sometimes mentions that he feels out of place among his affluent peers at Michigan.
The statistics back my roommate’s anecdotal account. In 2017, The New York Times compiled data that analyzed the demographics of America’s higher education institutions. The data revealed that the country’s top schools admitted way more students from elite families than they realized. The median family income of a student from the University is $154,000, and 66% of students come from the top 20% of income. The average income of U-M students is in the 80th percentile, with only 3.6% of kids coming from the lowest 20% of family incomes.
Income inequality is an issue closely related to race in this country, and this extends to the University’s disparity in family wealth among students. According to the University of Michigan’s Center for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, the student population is made up of 65% White/Caucasian people, 15% Asian-American people, 10% Other/Unknown, 5% Black/African American people, 6% Hispanic/Latino American people and 1% Native American people.
Asian Americans are the most represented minority group on campus, with the group even being overrepresented compared to the state of Michigan’s racial demographic. White people are slightly underrepresented, and Native-Americans are close to accurately represented, alongside Latinx people. Black people, however, are grievously underrepresented on campus. The percentage is less than a third of where it should be: 14% according to the 2020 U.S. Census. With places like Jackson, Ypsilanti and Metro Detroit so close by, it should be relatively easy to encourage more outreach programs like the U-M Detroit program to reach these communities underserved and underrepresented by the University.
Admittedly, I cannot find a good figure for the budget of the University’s Center for Educational Outreach, so I cannot confidently say anything surrounding its level of funding. It looks like the people there do good work and are skilled at this kind of outreach, advertising things like campus visits and college advising programs. However, looking at the University’s own published demographics from the 2008-2009 academic year, the year the CEO was founded, the number of enrolled students from underrepresented groups has not significantly improved.
As colleges become more and more competitive, it’s imperative that the University works to make sure students who come from underprivileged backgrounds aren’t left behind by their wealthier counterparts. According to the NYT study on higher education, poorer students do about as well as their wealthier counterparts post-graduation, making the “poor students wouldn’t be as successful even if admitted” excuse invalid. Even if that were true, it should still be the responsibility of the University to prepare disadvantaged students without access to things like SAT tutors or AP classes for the college environment.
The University of Michigan, alongside the University of California system, was forced to stop affirmative action in 2007. Gratz v. Bollinger (2003) was a U.S. Supreme Court case that ruled the University of Michigan’s affirmative action policies unconstitutional in violating the 14th Amendment. The University’s system added points to the applications of minority students to make up for the presumed gap in educational opportunities between minority groups and white people.
In order to make things equitable, a system like the “Adversity Index,” which considers potential applicants’ backgrounds to account for socioeconomic background, among other things. Affirmative action can be used in an entirely race-neutral manner and still benefit many of the underrepresented groups on campus due to the correlation of race and poverty. In addition, minority groups are not homogenous and often have wealth gaps of their own.
Though many Asian American ethnicities have high average incomes, Asian Americans have the highest intra-group wealth gaps out of any group in America. It wouldn’t be fair to the less fortunate members of that community to deny applicants because the community as a whole is overrepresented on campus. Of course, race-neutral affirmative action isn’t as effective at increasing racial diversity than explicitly race-based programs, but it’s better than nothing.
The University of Michigan needs to make more of an effort to admit and accommodate less privileged students and minority students. Broadly, affirmative action programs should be reinstated, even if they judge solely by economic factors. The Michigan constitution would have to be amended, which makes this implausible in the short term, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be any efforts to address this problem. Perhaps the University could reinvest a tiny fraction of its assets into outreach programs. Less fortunate applicants deserve a fair and equal chance to attend the University of Michigan.
Sam Fogel is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.
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