An uneven playing field

If you think of higher education as a great equalizer in this country, think again. At 38 colleges in America, more students came from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60 percent.
students walking at the university of maine campus
Roughly 38 percent of the University of Maine's undergraduate student body comes from out of state, up from about 16 percent a decade ago. Photo courtesy of the University of Maine.

Imagine yourself for a moment as a college student, seated around a seminar table with 19 classmates.

If that room was on the University of Maine campus in Orono, nine of the students at that table (statistically speaking) would be from families in the bottom 60 percent of annual income, with household earnings below $65,000. Five would come from the top 20 percent of families (those earning upwards of $110,000 per year), but none would be from the wealthiest 1 percent (with incomes over $630,000).

Travel southwest 100 miles to Bowdoin College and the class composition changes markedly. Only three or four students would come from families with incomes in the bottom 60 percent, while four students would be in the wealthiest 1 percent. More than two-thirds of the class would be from families in the top 20 percent.

Fast forward 15 years and, according to a startling study of economic diversity and student outcomes in higher education, the Bowdoin graduates would have — at age 34 — a median income 77 percent higher than their University of Maine counterparts ($61,000 versus $34,300).

If you grew up thinking that higher education was a great equalizer in this country, Paul Tough’s new book, “The Years that Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us,” may serve as an uncomfortable awakening.

An inclusive vision of equitable access did apply for a period following World War II, thanks to the 1944 GI Bill of Rights. But higher education has since succumbed to what Tough describes as “the hoarding of opportunity.”

Today a university degree is not so much a “tool for upward mobility,” Tough notes, as it is a “shield against downward mobility.”

And that shield is less accessible to those in lower-income brackets: “only about a quarter of college students born into the bottom half of the income distribution will manage to collect a BA by age 25,” he writes, “while almost 90 percent of freshmen born into families in the top income quartile will finish a degree by the same age.”

Young adults without a college degree are nearly four times more likely to live in poverty.

‘The Hoarding of Opportunity’

Lower-income high school students face numerous obstacles to college admissions that more affluent families can readily navigate (such as hiring the SAT tutor Tough interviews, who commands a $400-per-hour fee due to his success getting students higher test scores).

The College Board, which established the SAT, organized a PR campaign that “successfully rebranded the SAT and the College Board in the public’s mind as allies of the downtrodden and dispossessed,” Tough writes, despite years of data demonstrating that the SAT favors privileged students.

As colleges began to realize that high school grades were a better indicator of academic outcomes and some made standardized tests optional, the College Board sought out a new revenue stream. It successfully lobbied states — signing multimillion-dollar contracts — to administer the SAT to every high school junior. More than a dozen states, including Maine, now have an established “partnership” with the College Board.

The College Board also runs Advanced Placement (AP) testing, which further accentuates economic inequities. Less affluent school districts cannot afford to provide the full slate of AP courses that elite institutions now expect of applicants: only 48 percent of U.S. high schools, for example, even offer calculus.

College admissions staff and data-crunching “enrollment managers” concerned with annual revenue targets tend to favor “early decision” applicants (as those students commit to attend if admitted). Here again, wealthier students gain an upper hand while those from lower-income families must comparison shop among financial-aid offerings in the regular application season.

Colleges and universities, in an effort to balance strained budgets, increasingly admit high-income but lower-achieving students, what one admission director in Tough’s book sardonically calls “CFO specials” because they appease the institution’s chief financial officer.

“Admissions for us is not a matter of turning down students we’d like to admit,” one enrollment manager tells Tough. “It’s a matter of admitting students we’d like to turn down.”

Many institutions even use “merit aid” to persuade affluent students to enroll. “American colleges collectively now give more institutional aid to each student with a family income over $100,000, on average, than they do to each student with an income under $20,000,” Tough writes.

An ‘Unsustainable’ System

Since the 2008 financial crisis, a growing number of public universities have sought the higher tuitions provided by out-of-state students, using what Tough describes as “the same principles of enrollment management that selective private universities were employing.”

This dynamic is evident at the University of Maine’s flagship campus (where roughly 38 percent of undergraduates currently come from out-of-state, up from about 16 percent a decade ago). It is even more pronounced in states like Vermont where, Tough writes, 77 percent of students now come from out-of-state.

The inequities Tough describes are continually compounding, as wealthy donors give primarily to wealthy institutions for the benefit of wealthy students: “It is a phenomenon that seems unsustainable — and yet, at the same time, unstoppable.”

Those two Maine seminar classrooms encapsulate a staggering disparity in institutional resources due to differing endowments (which can assist students through opportunities such as financial aid, advising and research). At Orono, the university’s endowment value per student in 2018 was $12,571; at Bowdoin, that value was more than 70 times higher — $897,555 per student.

When Paul Tough was in Maine last month for a talk at the University of Southern Maine, I asked him whether he felt these trends were truly unstoppable. His portrait of the skewed educational system is “just one example of the inequities out there,” he observed, and how those might get addressed is “what the next election will be about.”

Since the post-war GI bill, our shared sense of education as a public good in this country has weakened to the point where, Tough said, “we’re not meeting the call as we did then.

“A lot of these [reform] efforts are pretty isolated and isolating,” Tough acknowledged, and an “atomized, competitive system makes it harder to find political common ground.”

But he remains optimistic: “I’m still hopeful that we can come together.”


Marina Schauffler

Marina Schauffler is a writer and editor who explores the complex interconnections between ecology and culture. Her "Sea Change" column, launched in 2014, highlights ways to live more sustainably and address our collective environmental and societal challenges, particularly the climate crisis. She holds a Ph.D. in natural resources and an MA in English/creative nonfiction writing (both from the University of New Hampshire), and an interdisciplinary honors BA from Brown University.
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