Erik Nesler: Inequality in higher education

Wednesday, November 28, 2018 - 5:34pm

Erik Nesler

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Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City and potential Democratic presidential contender in 2020, recently donated $1.8 billion (yes, billion with a b) to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University. He wrote about the rationale for his donation in an Op-Ed published by The New York Times: he wants Hopkins to have a completely need-blind admissions process. Students will be accepted based on their merit, and not their ability to pay, which is unfortunately still a factor at many of the most prestigious universities in this country.

Though his desire to halt intergenerational poverty through need-blind admissions is commendable and inspiring, there exists controversy over his donation. In a Letter to the Editor of The New York Times,  Tony Liss, interim provost at the City University of New York wrote how the money could have been better spent at a less prestigious university—one that was more widely available to low- and middle-income students. He also referred to another Times column which highlighted how the City University of New York “propelled almost six times as many low-income students into the middle class and beyond as all eight Ivy League campuses, plus Duke, M.I.T., Stanford and Chicago, combined.”

Helaine Olen, a contributor for the New York Times, echoed this sentiment by writing in her piece that while Hopkins may be ethnically diverse (with 25 percent of the student body African American and Hispanic) the university is less inclusive of those from lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. With only 12 percent of Hopkins’ student body classified as first-generation college students, Olen suggests the university could be doing more to promote economic diversity.

The controversy surrounding Bloomberg’s donation reminded me of a powerful piece I read last year titled “The 9.9 Percent is the New American Aristocracy." In it, Matthew Stewart details how the wealthiest 10 percent of American households (excluding the top 0.1 percent because of their obscene amount of wealth) like to give off the impression that they’re a part of some meritocracy – that any individual from even the lowest socioeconomic background can work hard enough and make their way into the top 10 percent. This idea, however, could not be further from the truth.

Economic mobility in the land of opportunity is no longer a realistic expectation for those seeking to advance their financial position in this world. The children of the top decile settle down later in life near their starting point (as doctors, lawyers or senior vice presidents at a major corporation). This reality extends to children in the bottom decile too. It is intergenerational poverty that pulls these children right back to where they came from.

The wealthiest 10 percent of American households, Stewart asserts, have managed to secure the financial security (and prosperity) of their children through higher education. He writes “(t)he skin colors of the nation’s elite student bodies are more varied now, as are their genders, but their financial bones have calcified over the past 30 years.”

Inequality is perpetuated through higher education through the use of legacy-admissions policies, which reward applicants whose parents attended the same university. In addition, acoording to Stewart private high schools serve as “affirmative-action programs for the wealthy” because “only 2.2 percent of the nation’s students graduate from nonsectarian private high schools, and yet these graduates account for 26 percent of students at Harvard and 28 percent of students at Princeton.”

The lack of economic inclusivity at elite institutions extends beyond the Ivy League. Even the University of Michigan is affected, as only 16 percent of Michigan’s student body is made up of students from the bottom 60 percent of earners, while nearly 10 percent of the student body comes from the top 1 percent.

It turns out that this inequality in higher education is also perpetuated through the U.S. News college rankings.  Colleges and universities are ranked (quite arbitrarily) on a host of factors—with one of great importance being the average test scores of its student body. In order to improve their ranking, colleges and universities are incentivized to admit only the best and brightest. The problem arises when you consider students from the top income bracket can score more than 130 points higher on all portions of the SAT than their peers in the bottom bracket.

Bloomberg’s donation may make his alma mater’s admissions process need-blind, but that assumes the students from lower socioeconomic classes are viable contenders in the process. His donation does nothing for the high school students unable to prove their worth to the institution through high grades or test scores.  

While Bloomberg’s $1.8 billion will certainly have an impact on the economic diversity of Hopkins’ student body, the money will make but a small dent (which he admits) in the effort to halt intergenerational poverty in the United States. Making America the land of opportunity once again will require greater, more economically impartial access to higher education. It may also require restraining the New American Aristocracy.

Erik Nesler can be reached at egnesler@umich.edu

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly cited Smith College President Kathleen McCartney as the author of the New York Times Letter to the Editor. The current version has been updated to include the correct author, Tony Liss of City University of New York.