Elite Colleges Enrollments Predominantly Drawn from Elite Earners
Jacobin blogger Tanner Howard posted an article debunking the Meritocratic Myth that elite universities provide a means for poor and working class students to advance to a higher class. Ms. Howard offered the following data gathered in a recent study conducted by Northwestern University to support her assertion:
The report revealed that most college students at elite universities come from the upper echelon of American society. In fact, thirty-eight institutions enroll more students from the top 1 percent than students from the bottom 60 percent.
And fixing this will not be easy since the cost of attending these elite universities is daunting and most students from the bottom 60% do not qualify for student loans. And even if the lower income students DO get in, they may not have access to all that the university can offer:
Wealthy parents can buy their children into a good school with a strong brand name and a $70,000-plus tuition bill without giving it a second thought. These schools admit and fund a handful of low-income students so they can call themselves economically diverse institutions, even as those students cannot afford to participate in many of their institutions’ quintessential experiences, such as study abroad trips or unpaid internships.
Ms. Howard’s solution to this problem is to offer free tuition to students who qualify for entry into a public university. But, as she notes, public universities have been starved of funds in the recent past, diminishing their appeal to prospective teachers and students alike. She offers City University of New York as a case in point:
The City University of New York system shows that large-scale, well-funded institutions of higher learning can expand access to working-class populations. In fact, five CUNY colleges appear in the top twenty of the 2016 Social Mobility Index, which measures how effectively schools provide low-income students with a low-tuition education and allow them to avoid taking on debt .
The City College of New York, founded in 1851 as the nation’s first free public university, became known as “the Harvard of the proletariat” for successfully educating “the children of the whole people.” City College also established the nation’s first degree-granting evening program, offering numerous opportunities for workers with full-time jobs to work towards a college degree. The CUNY network today serves nearly 275,000 degree-seeking students.
But the neoliberalization of public education has been particularly hard on CUNY students. Between 1990 and 2010, the percentage of funding derived from student tuition at senior colleges nearly doubled, from 21 percent to 41 percent. And in 2016, Governor Cuomo proposed cutting$485 million — a third of the school’s funding — from its budget .
Although Cuomo recently announced his intention to offer free tuition to students coming from families making less than $125,000, his track record gives us reason to pause. Considering that CUNY faculty have received no pay increases in six years, and that adjuncts — many earning less than $30,000 annually — teach half of the school’s students, increasing financial support for students will not restore public universities to their full potential. Robust spending on all aspects of public institutions, including living wages for all faculty and service staff, is just as necessary to promoting successful universities as reducing the cost of admission.
Until quality post-secondary education becomes affordable, the notion of education being a means of economic mobility will remain a myth… and thousands of parents and students will become increasingly disillusion with the way our current system operates. As Ms. Howard writes in the concluding paragraphs:
…Any suggestion that elite schools actually challenge class hierarchy creates a meritocratic myth. Stories like the Obamas’ help perpetuate the illusion that any American, regardless of their origins, can join the 1 percent if they work hard enough. The visibility of a small handful of high-profile success stories obscures the limited possibilities afforded to most poor students.
Elite universities will never offer genuine, mass opportunities for advancement for working-class people. We have to restore public university funding and reduce costs to expand access to higher education to all.