Robert L. Woodbury: Social contracts erode at colleges
Robert L. Woodbury is the former chancellor of the University of Maine
System and former director of the John W. McCormack Institute for Public
Affairs at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. This article first
appeared in the Fall 2005 issue of Connection: The Journal of the New
England Board of Higher Education.
Monday, November 28, 2005
ALMOST 50 YEARS AGO, a New England Board of Higher Education newsletter
editorialized that "institutions of higher learning must not become
devices to reverse our historic trend away from a class society. We
should continue to open wider doors of opportunity for students of
genuine ability without regard to [family] income."
The Higher Education Act of 1965, with its commitment of federal support
to new need-based student-aid programs, and subsequent legislation
establishing Basic Grants, later renamed Pell Grants, after U.S. Sen.
Claiborne Pell, seemed to confirm that aspiration. And indeed, the years
following NEBHE's founding saw an enormous expansion in the number of
citizens pursuing higher education.
In recent years, however, that social contract between the government
and the larger society to make higher education available without regard
to family income, has become increasingly threadbare. An avalanche of
recent articles, books and media reports documents the proposition that
the more competitive institutions, whether private colleges or public
universities, have become, to quote Mellon Foundation President William
G. Bowen, "bastions of privilege" as much as "engines of opportunity."
Over the past 25 years, the more competitive and wealthier institutions
have become increasingly populated by the most economically advantaged
students. Public institutions, with their more limited resources and
lower tuitions, have become the places of necessity for middle- and
lower-income families, if they can afford college at all.
Both The Economist magazine and The New York Times have devoted major
efforts to exploring the role of higher education in hardening class
lines in America.
A Century Foundation paper on college admissions and socio-economic
status by economists Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose provides some
overwhelming statistics: At the 146 most competitive (and richest)
colleges in the United States, 74 percent of students come from the top
social and economic quartile; only 3 percent come from the bottom
quartile; only 10 percent come from families below the median. Half the
low-income students who are able to go on to higher education at all do
so at community colleges, where wealthier students are a rarity.
At elite private colleges and universities, despite large commitments of
financial aid, very few students even qualify for a Pell Grant because
of their family income. At the University of Virginia, fewer than 10
percent of students have Pell Grants, which are generally awarded to
students whose family incomes are under $40,000.
At the University of Michigan, more students come from homes with family
incomes of $200,000 than with family incomes below the national median.
Among those who do go to college, advantaged students have access to far
richer resources than poorer students, because the institutions they
attend are far wealthier; the 10 richest colleges in America, for
example, have combined endowments of about $78 billion.
A student at an elite private institution may have as much as $75,000 of
college resources devoted to his education, while only a small fraction
of that sum will be available, from tuition and government resources, at
a local community college or regional public university.
Moreover, the hardening of class lines in higher education has broader
class implications because, as the rewards for a college degree from a
prestigious institution become ever more valuable in the global economy,
it is the already-advantaged who reap the largest rewards from higher
In addition, the quality of a liberal education at all institutions
suffers when the economic diversity of the student body disappears. (An
undergraduate at an elite college in Maine wrote recently about what it
was like to be in a college where few students even knew anyone who was
The growing stratification in higher education is the result of a
variety of new factors that are reinforcing one another.
First, because of growing income disparity, tuition has exploded as a
percentage of family income for middle- and especially lower-income
families over the past 30 years, but has actually decreased slightly for
wealthier families. And the widening gulf between rich and poor is
reflected in disparities in public schools, in neighborhoods, in school
"readiness" and many other dimensions of everyday life that affect one's
course toward higher education.
Second, for hundreds of colleges and universities, the quest for success
in a very competitive market has led to an arms race that diverts
resources from financial aid to high-priced amenities such as fancy
dormitories and glitzy campus centers in order to attract students.
In addition, state and federal governments have retreated from support
of needy students and the institutions they attend. Financial-aid
programs cover less and less of college costs. In fact, Pell Grants
covered 80 percent of four-year college costs 20 years ago, but just 40
percent today. Individual states -- once the primary source of revenue
for state colleges and universities -- provide relatively less each year
for higher education as their budgets are squeezed by rapidly escalating
Medicaid, criminal justice and K-12 costs.
Students at the less prestigious institutions are hurt most because
their institutions, with their smaller endowments and less sophisticated
fundraising operations, are most dependent on state aid and tuition
Also, both public and private institutions have increasingly adopted
market strategies that favor wealthier students. Across America,
colleges and public systems are replacing need-based student-aid dollars
with "merit-based" aid that helps institutions lure more "desirable"
(usually wealthier) applicants, who are able to pay at least some of the
Others rely on the euphemistic tuition "discounting," which offers some
students admission at below the advertised price for a variety of
reasons other than financial need.
Many elite institutions favor the "savvy" applicant through
early-admissions policies, which less well-counseled applicants are less
likely to be aware of. Attention to "résumé-building" also gives
advantage to wealthy students who may be more familiar with ways to
enhance their applications. And college-recruitment strategies often
target wealthier school districts.
Lastly, two powerful players in the marketing and admissions business
play roles that tend to harden class lines among institutions. The
annual college-ratings edition of U.S. News & World Report plays an
enormous role in the marketing of institutions and college choice. Most
of the criteria used in the rating system favor rich institutions and
the recruitment of wealthier students. One of the criteria, for example,
awards colleges points based on their budget per student. This provides
a powerful incentive not to lower tuition charges. Another measure uses
SAT scores, which are reliably correlated with family income and
parents' experience with college; the most heavily weighted criteria
focus on "reputation," which tends to give momentum to the most
established and elite institutions.
The SAT itself is an instrument of stratification in higher education, a
measuring stick that generally correlates with family income. Although
most competitive colleges use a variety of tools in selecting students
for admission, the average or range of SAT scores at an institution
plays a disproportionate role in admissions decision-making. Further,
wealthier families and schools take extra advantage of test-preparation
programs; the new writing sample may, in fact, heighten that advantage.
There is also a long history of studies that suggest a cultural bias
inherent in the SAT test itself.
If the causes and culprits of the increasing stratification of higher
education between the rich and the poor are many and complex, are there
any steps we might individually and collectively take? Certainly
reducing the gaps between rich and poor overall in the United States
would be a most effective strategy for reinvigorating opportunity in
education and many other arenas.
But there are other, less ambitious, possibilities as well. For
starters, read the latest book by former Princeton President William
Bowen and his colleagues, titled, Equity and Education in American
I cannot do justice here to the range and thoughtfulness of their
analysis, but several recommendations stand out.
First, the elite institutions, which have long been "need blind," should
now be "need conscious" -- in short, wealthy institutions that can
afford more financial aid should provide a "thumb on the scale" to
enroll poorer students. Highly qualified lower-income students, even
those with high SAT scores, are now being rejected by elite institutions
that are unaware that they have qualified lower-income students in their
Second, admission to college on the basis of "legacy" and athletic
prowess should be seriously questioned. It is particularly difficult to
rationalize preferential treatment for children of alumni at wealthy
institutions that claim to exemplify the idea of a meritocracy.
Third, much more aggressive steps should be taken to target less
advantaged school systems in an effort to identify talented students at
a much earlier stage in their education and provide the support to help
them be successful. A recent report from the Lumina Foundation on the
efforts of 15 colleges and universities to reach out and provide
programs for low-income students provides some good models for aiding
Fourth, the time has come to re-examine the SAT as an admissions
requirement. Bates and Bowdoin colleges, in Maine, have not required
applicants to submit SAT scores for many years. The two colleges have
found that those applicants who did not supply SAT scores (and scored
significantly lower on the tests) ended up with almost identical grades
in college and graduation rates as those who did submit scores. But the
major effect of dropping the SAT requirement has been a much larger and
more diverse applicant pool.
Fifth, it is time for college leaders, who privately deride the U.S.
News rating system, to stop cooperating with this deeply flawed system
or encourage criteria that acknowledge the powerful role of diversity in
education. The popular magazine is beginning to feel some heat about
this. Its 2006 issue for the first time includes a ranking of colleges
and universities according to their "economic diversity," by which it
means the percentage of undergraduates who receive federal Pell Grants
for low-income students. At Alabama A&M, for example, the figure is 83
percent. At Princeton, which tied for first in the magazine's overall
rankings of "America's Best Colleges" this year, the figure is 7
In other words, how institutions perform on this measure still has no
bearing on their overall rankings that are so important to prospective
students and various benefactors. U.S. News might be encouraged to adopt
a rating system that makes student diversity -- by family income, race
and ethnicity, even a student's age and employment status -- part of the
methodology. Further, important efforts are under way to develop more
thoughtful ratings systems, based less on "inputs" and more on what a
college does for a student. University leadership and the media could
support and encourage these alternative rating systems.
Sixth, and more important, is the general plight of the public
higher-education systems, where most of America's students go to
college. A number of public universities now receive less than 10
percent of their revenue from their state government. They should be
congratulated for their success in attracting other resources. But most
students attend public institutions whose quality and capacity are based
primarily on state support and escalating tuition charges. As public
support has eroded, the claim to real access has become increasingly
Finally, financial aid on the basis of financial need must recapture its
pre-eminence in the system of expanding higher-education opportunity.
For public institutions and state governments to divert resources to
so-called merit awards, for private institutions to target key resources
to tuition discounting as a marketing tool, and for the elite colleges
to provide financial aid to the wealthy as a recruitment tool, is to
hasten the course to a more rigid class system in higher education.
In the end, the idea of equal opportunity will be gravely weakened, and
so will the economy and society that depend upon it.