The Growing Education Gap And Universities Part In It

Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote in the New York Times:

Especially in these days after Katrina, everybody laments poverty and inequality. But what are you doing about it? For example, let’s say you work at a university or a college. You are a cog in the one of the great inequality producing machines this country has known. What are you doing to change that?

Economist Mark Thoma takes issue with this comment and responds with:

Let me defend universities against the implied notion that colleges aren’t doing anything to address these problems…I chaired the University’s Scholarship Committee, the committee responsible for allocating the entire pool of University scholarship money. As Chair, I had the committee reexamine each step in our process to try and identify hidden bias in the award of scholarship money…I resent the implication that we do not care, are not sensitive to, or are not taking action to address these problems. We are.

To which economist Arnold Kling responds:

In my view, the issue is larger than universities’ policies concerning admissions and financial aid. It concerns how universities are financed, and how this affects the distribution of income.

First, consider state subsidies for universities. These are almost certainly regressive. Much of the subsidy goes to raise the rents earned by administrators and professors. Much of the rest goes to affluent students. The taxes that pay for the subsidies come from all economic classes.

Second, consider university endowments. Again, they serve to increase rents of employees and to subsidize those students who attend the most elite institutions–a student population that is disproportionately affluent.

Imagine instead what might happen if state funds and alumni donations funded vouchers for student tuition.

Compared with reforming university finances, tinkering with admissions and scholarship policies is beside the point. It may “show that you care,” but has little practical significance.

The complete exchange, along with Mark Toma’s final response, can be found here.

38 Responses to “The Growing Education Gap And Universities Part In It”


  • Hmmm, HP, what are your views on this? Do you think Universities are doing all they can to diversify the pool of students and scholarships?

  • The US has universal access to higher education. You can see this in a state like California where all a student has to do to be eligible to go to college is graduate high school. Yes, that would be community college, but it’s still a college. There is access and there are avenues to higher education.

    Since the original quote did not designate between four-year institutions and two-year institutions, one can say that it is even more untrue. If the author means that the most prestigious universities are still just educating the elite, then that’s another article, but if you want to lump all of postsecondary education together — a very diverser system in the US — then I would say it’s false.

    In the past higher education may have been very limited — and it still is for some subgroups of the population — but the fact is that Morrill Acts which created the land grant institutions expanded access for populations that had previously not had access to higher education.

  • Imagine instead what might happen if state funds and alumni donations funded vouchers for student tuition.

    Ha… I’ve seen this happen. Alumni associations offer tons of scholarships. I went to a state school and got a Cal Grant to cover my already subsized registration fees (tuition). So what happened? I and many other lower middle class students like me whose parents were immigrants and had not gone to a four-year college or university got the chance to go to one of the best institutions in the US.

  • EMC, Cindylu,

    The best way Universities, if they truly care about real diversity, can better diversify their pool of students is, instead of subsidizing the University as a whole, subsidize individual students. In other words, give free education to students from Compton, from Watts, from South Central that go to some of the most expensive schools in the country.

    Currently, subsidizing Universities costs everybody money, and as we all know, this hurts the poor the most, yet the benefits of that subsidy goes primarily to the rich; the already wealthy staff and the already wealthy students. In other words, the way we currently subsidize our Universities robs from the poor to give to the rich.

    This is what I propose, an egalitarian system that I would strongly support, Robert Dunn, professor of economics at George Washington University, writes:

    Why should students at Princeton, where economist Paul Krugman teaches when he is not thundering against the “well off ” on the New York Times editorial page, enjoy income from huge endowments, while students at poorer institutions have far fewer educational resources? How unfair!

    Worse, the extreme inequality of colleges is subsidized by the government. Gifts to rich schools are tax deductible for the donors. Universities and colleges pay no taxes on their capital gains, dividend, and interest income. This is an outrage against liberal principles! Remedial legislation is clearly needed!

    These are no small matters. The disparities in college endowments are enormous. As of mid 2004, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton had average endowments of $14.9 billion, while three private institutions of similar size, George Washington University, Georgetown, and American University, averaged $543 million. That is a ratio of 27:1—about the same difference in income between a successful investment banker and a Wal-Mart clerk.

    The numbers are even more striking in small liberal arts colleges. Grinnell, the richest of those that report data publicly, had an endowment of $1.2 million per student. Annual earnings of just 4 percent would produce more than $46,000 per student in yearly interest. Why does Grinnell charge tuition?

    Bates College had only $106,000 in endowment per student, less than one tenth of Grinnell’s. Gettysburg had $85,000 per student; Pitzer College $56,000; and Sarah Lawrence, only $38,000. That’s about 3 percent of Grinnell’s wealth.

    It’s time for an egalitarian revolution. Liberal professors at Harvard, Princeton, Amherst, and Williams should follow the principles they proclaim and strongly support action to end campus disparities by redistributing educational wealth.

    Congress should pass, and President Bush should sign, a hefty and progressive tax on large per student endowments. The funds should be transferred to poorer schools. The same tax should apply to future gifts from alumni.

    And why stop there? If redistribution is good, the same concept should apply within universities. Why should the law schools at George Washington and Georgetown live in splendor just because their alumni make more money than theology or economics or anthropology majors? The wealth of these law schools should be transferred to poorer departments. Particularly economics!

    But I have a feeling you won’t be hearing any of this at the Universities next ‘social justice’ class.

  • You write

    The best way Universities, if they truly care about real diversity, can better diversify their pool of students is, instead of subsidizing the University as a whole, subsidize individual students. In other words, give free education to students from Compton, from Watts, from South Central that go to some of the most expensive schools in the country.

    Currently, subsidizing Universities costs everybody money, and as we all know, this hurts the poor the most, yet the benefits of that subsidy goes primarily to the rich; the already wealthy staff and the already wealthy students. In other words, the way we currently subsidize our Universities robs from the poor to give to the rich.

    First, do you really think the staffs and professors of universities are wealthy? I was a staff member at one of the top universities and I sure as hell am and was not rich.

    Second, there are a number of universities who ARE giving free rides to needy students. Maybe the conservative blogs you read don’t tell you about this. Two recent examples:

    Program at William & Mary

    Under the program, called Gateway William and Mary, undergraduate students from families whose annual income is $40,000 or less will receive college, state and federal grants to cover most of their expenses — tuition, fees and room and board.

    Program at U of Virginia

    Some schools, including U-Md., Towson University, St. Mary’s College of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University, have added hefty scholarships that target needy top students from Baltimore public schools. And Friday, the College of William and Mary announced a scholarship program, the first major initiative of new President Gene R. Nichol: Any student accepted with a family income of $40,000 or less will graduate debt-free.

    The trend started at Harvard University and has spread to several public colleges in the past few years. AccessUVa guarantees that any student whose parents earn up to about $38,000 supporting a family of four gets tuition, room and board, books and fees covered. Another 600 or so students get financial aid with limited or no debt.

    Oh yeah, and I think the oldest universities in the nation might just have greater endowments because they’ve been around so damn long. I don’t really have an opinion on Dunn’s proposal.

  • Cindylu,

    First, do you really think the staffs and professors of universities are wealthy? I was a staff member at one of the top universities and I sure as hell am and was not rich.

    I am surprised to hear you say this Cindylu, using you as an example, is really not a good indicator. Afterall, how many Mexicans in general do you see at top Universities? Certainly you are the rarity, not the normality. And I would think it is an undebatable fact that the vast majority of students, even professors, at the top Universities are overwhelmingly rich.

    Second, there are a number of universities who ARE giving free rides to needy students. Maybe the conservative blogs you read don’t tell you about this.

    I know there are such programs, but if you notice, these programs tend to be relatively new, and are still overall very small in scope. Especially when you consider the LARGE, in the multi-millions of dollars, of subsidization these Universities get. So I support increasing the programs, and more importantly, fundamentally changing the system all together, which is where the Robert Dunn article comes in.

  • Alfonso,
    You wrote about students, faculty, and staff at top universities. I’ve been two of three of those. You used a sweeping generalization of this population and whereas I do know that richer students are more likely to attend more selective (and thus more prestigious) institutions, I also know that not all elite institutions are rich.

    When I used myself as an example, I was speaking specifically as a full-time staff member in student affairs. According to you, I would have been “wealthy” and we all know that isn’t true.

    And yeah, I know those programs are new.

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