by Sue Halpern
Over the past few years we’ve read debate after debate about the value of a college degree, about the value of studying the humanities, about the value–not!–of an Ivy League education. We’ve learned that it still pays to go to college since college grads earn more than those who without a degree. We’ve learned that English majors do better than promoters of STEM education might have us believe. We’ve learned that this bit of information has not been shared with some university administrators and legislators, who would like to eliminate such “useless” degree programs. We’ve learned that there aren’t as many STEM jobs as we’ve been lead to think there are, but we’ve also learned that math and computer science graduates make more money than, say, psych majors. We’ve learned from a former Yale professor (though we’ve heard it before) that his colleagues at big, fancy research institutions don’t really value interacting with students. We’ve learned, from students and alumnae at some of those places, that that’s not always the case. (As I learned yesterday from a video posted on this site, “the plural of anecdote is not data.”)
But what may be the most pertinent piece of information has emerged this summer comes from a pair of government studies, reported yesterday in The New York Times, that show that despite all efforts at “diversity,” American colleges and universities have made essentially no gains in opening their doors to the poor and less-well-off. And this despite the fact that the number of high achieving students from poor families has substantially increased.
Another study, of the most selective colleges in the country, found that
from 2001 to 2009, a period of major increases in financial aid at those schools, enrollment of students from the bottom 40 percent of family incomes increased from just 10 percent to 11 percent.
Education experts offer numerous explanations for this flat line: these are students without role models and without parents who have attended college so they do not know what is possible; these are families who look at the sticker price–now over $60,000 in some cases–and don’t know that financial aid might knock that down to something reasonable; these are schools that don’t do a great job of seeking out the best-and-the brightest from low income backgrounds. According to Cappy Hill, the president of Vassar, a school that has made an effort to enroll these students, and has succeeded, “There has to be a commitment to go out and find them.”
It may be, though, that it is precisely commitment that is lacking:
“A lot of it is just about money, because each additional low-income student you enroll costs you a lot in financial aid,” said Michael N. Bastedo, director of the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan. “No one is going to talk openly and say, ‘Oh, we’re not making low-income students a priority.’ But enrollment management is so sophisticated that they know pretty clearly how much each student would cost.”
Colleges generally spend 4 percent to 5 percent of their endowments per year on financial aid, prompting some administrators to cite this rough math: Sustaining one poor student who needs $45,000 a year in aid requires $1 million in endowment devoted to that purpose; 100 of them require $100 million. Only the wealthiest schools can do that, and build new laboratories, renovate dining halls, provide small classes and bid for top professors.
The rankings published by U.S. News and World Report, and others, also play a major role. The rankings reward spending on facilities and faculty, but most pay little or no attention to financial aid and diversity.
Here’s a plan: Next time you hear a college with which you are affiliated touting its diversity statistics, dig deeper. Critical Inquiry: the true value of the liberal arts.
(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)