Elite Universities Are Just Corporations, Failing America’s Poor Students

Imagine yourself a working-class kid considering college. Maybe you were part of that huge group of American children, one in five, that grew up poor. In any case, you know that a college degree is one of the few reliable ways out of poverty in our notoriously static society, where your parents’ wealth is the strongest indicator of your own future prosperity. Your chances of leaving poverty nearly triple if you graduate from college, and a bachelor’s degree earns you almost two-thirds more than a high school diploma.

It’s a smart investment, but an average graduate’s debt of $35,200 doesn’t sound so good. Will you really be able to repay that off during the worst youth unemployment crisis since they started keeping track in 1948, where a full half of your cohort can’t find work and more than a third move back home? Disturbingly, it seems the colleges most likely to land you a good job don’t even really care about you. Only 14% of students at the most competitive colleges come from the lowest 50% of families by income, a figure that hasn’t budged in more than two decades. Good luck!

This is the hollow script of a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps America, the brutal mathematics facing today’s disadvantaged youth. Little has changed after generations of glossy college brochures filled with endless rhetoric about diversity. Teenagers ready to work hard to better their circumstances are still waiting for the chance.

As a recent New York Times report points out, elite colleges have severely neglected to recruit poor students. “It’s a question of how serious you are about it,” says Vassar College’s president Catharine Bond Hill. Her institution — along with a handful of others, like Amherst and Emory — makes real efforts to boost low-income enrollment, distributing federal Pell Grants to 22% of its undergraduates. Most of the grant recipients come from households earning less than $30,000 a year. These colleges do this despite being severely underfunded by Ivy League standards, where the rate hovers around the 15% average for the 50 most competitive colleges.

Concerning, of course, but to whom? “Some private college administrators,” notes the Times, “say they do not have the same moral obligation as public colleges to serve all strata of society.” This is a sentiment taken straight from corporate boardrooms, one that sheds light on deep­ shifts within an American academy that can justify skyrocketing tuitions, ballooning student debt, and an explosion in underpaid, “contingent” faculty — for what? Record salaries for administrators, whose positions are multiplying at a rate soon set to overtake the number of instructors at four-year nonprofit universities? Massive, sometimes global expansion projects that are often vehemently opposed by the university communities themselves?

What’s unfolding is a full-scale corporatization of the American university, where an increasing concentration of power at the top has made students, the curriculum, and the academic workforce into a sideshow. In their place is that ideology ironically cooked up by business schools and corporate management in the 1980s: “maximize shareholder value.” William Lazonick, professor of economics at UMass-Lowell, has extensively demonstrated how this ethic has ravaged the U.S. economy, instructing companies to reinvest their profits in lucrative stock buybacks that benefit top executives instead of wages and job creation. At universities, the important shareholders are those wealthy donors who sit on boards of trustees, engaging in similar parasitism on a different scale. As a 2010 Chronicle of Higher Education study exposed, a shocking (and growing) number of these boards routinely conduct business transactions that enrich their own members, profoundly affecting everyone on campus along the way. 

It’s inside college boardrooms that priorities are set, and unfortunately, poor students aren’t very high on the list. Institutions like Princeton (only 12% Pell grantees) are instead preoccupied with maintaining their enormous alumni cash flows, which impact college rankings much more than socioeconomic diversity. The arrangement has given rise to a set of elite colleges of, for, and by the 1%, where the same Wall Street bankers and captains of industry running the show exclude the poor and mint wildly disproportionate numbers of investment bankers itching to reproduce entrenched inequality. Public colleges, not us, have the responsibility of serving “all strata of society,” say private college administrators, while at the same time public higher education withers under macroeconomic conditions elite private college grads largely created.

The greatest tragedy of the situation is how easily it can be fixed. In their research on funding higher education, the Brookings Institution has outlined a number of ways to boost low-income enrollment at low cost and real benefit to everyone. Or, to be truly quixotic, we could start treating higher education like the public good it is in other countries. Economist Doug Henwood illustrates how simple it would be to make higher education completely free in the United States: It amounts to less than 2% of the GDP, about three months of Pentagon spending or four months of administering the most inefficient health care system in the world. Such a transformation, however, requires will and commitment that won’t come from those happily perched at the top.