“One Percent” Institutions and the Public Interest

Crabby pries open the golden gates…

Yesterday’s Chronicle of Higher Education reported some good news for low-income students (fuller article in the New York Times): The University of Chicago will now do more for those students by, among other things, replacing student loans  with grants in cases of need-based financial aid; automatically waiving the application fee for students applying for financial aid; and eliminating the CSS/Financial Aid Profile (which asks more detailed questions than the FAFSA) as part of the application process for financial aid.

Additionally, the University will, according to the Times, do several other highly unusual things such as

eliminating the expectation that low- and middle-income students take jobs during the academic year, guaranteeing them paid summer internships after their first year in college and providing them career counseling beginning in that first year.

In trying to eliminate some of the financial and paperwork hurdles that particularly plague  low-income applicants and prevent as much as 20-30 percent of potential applicants from applying and subsequently enrolling, the University joins the ranks of other “one percent” institutions such as Harvard and Amherst that have greatly increased their commitment to enabling more low-income students to attend. These institutions are to be congratulated for developing and committing the resources necessary to maximize accessibility for students from every background.

However (you knew this was coming, right?), while these efforts give these particular institutions bragging rights in the area of greater access to these particular institutions, they do not address the systemic problem of access to college for low-income students:  The many times those students accepted at “99 percent” institutions can’t enroll because those institutions simply can’t afford to help them.

The Times reports that

The share of low-income students at elite colleges has barely changed in decades, and the University of Chicago has had less economic diversity than most. The widening gap between rich and poor, and increasing competition for admission to top colleges, contribute to concerns that they fuel inequality rather than social mobility.

While the “one percent” institutions can afford to eliminate loans, waive fees, buy books, provide paid internships and so on for low-income students (again, not a bad thing at all), that does nothing to help the low-income students applying to colleges without the financial wherewithal to do the same thing. The “share of low-income students” hasn’t budged because not only has the cost of college risen dramatically (without subsequent and equivalent expansions of all financial aid budgets), but also because the number of spaces at colleges of any kind has not significantly changed and when it does, it can be slow: It took Amherst 40 years to expand from 1,200 (all male) students to a (coed) student body of 1,800. In fact, more colleges have closed than opened in the past twenty years (the less said about for-profits the better).

Colleges are not easily expandable, so if they take more low-income students, they have to take fewer “full-pay,” legacy, and other types of students. Observers not taking this factor into account do not fully realize the difficulty of balancing the moral and social obligations of colleges with their financial realities. While I was an admission officer at Amherst in the 90s, one of our charges was to be sure that we had at least 46 percent of the entering class on financial aid. We were very conscious of trying to be as economically diverse as possible and were lucky to have an essentially unlimited financial aid budget. But Amherst, like the other “one percent” institutions, is the exception, not the rule.

Bringing more low-income students into specific institutions doesn’t address the systemic problem centered on the intersection of morality and finances. This summer the dean of admission at a respected liberal arts college noted that they had done such a good job of recruiting and enrolling low-income students they would have to take a serious look at financial aid distribution to keep it sustainable. Other institutions who would like to be more generous have pulled back from financial aid policies that tried to ease the burden for low-income students. This is the reality: Colleges and universities aren’t actively trying to keep out low-income students, they simply don’t have Princeton’s or Amherst’s or the University of Chicago’s resources to do so and stay in business.

When I say resources, I’m talking endowments that top the gross domestic products of some countries. The New Republic recently presented a graphic that showed, for example, that Stanford’s endowment of nearly $18.7 billion is larger than the GDP of Honduras, and Yale’s at nearly $21 billion is larger than Zambia’s (OK, they’re not huge countries, but still…). In October 2013, U.S. News reported:

Of the 1,141 ranked National Universities, National Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Colleges and Regional Universities that reported endowment figures to U.S. News, the average endowment was roughly $329.9 million.

At the 10 schools with the highest endowments, the average endowment was about $13 billion. All but two schools on the list – University of Michigan—Ann Arbor and Texas A&M University—College Station – are private schools.

While it’s commendable for a university with an endowment the size of the Jordanian economy (Harvard) to do more for its own low-income students, perhaps the institutions in this “one percent” club could consider reaching beyond their own golden gates to help address the issue in the spirit of our own national interest.

My suggestion: Establish a national college endowment fund that the “99 percent” colleges and universities could draw on to supplement their own resources and help them enroll more low-income students. This endowment would be funded by the “one percent” institutions out of a fraction of a percentage of their own endowment earnings each year.

The biggest hurdle aside from actually setting up this entity might be overcoming the  intense competition that has seized the college world, but higher education is not the airline or fast food business. Whatever the unique differences among our colleges and universities, they are all doing the same work and committed to the same end result. Pooling some of their resources (perhaps combining forces with current major scholarship entities) and providing grants to institutions rather than individuals would stretch those schools’ ability to reach a far larger audience. To help the majority of colleges and universities in this country would truly increase the percentage of low-income students at four-year institutions.

An arrangement like this would demonstrate a genuine national commitment to low-income students, not just to those fortunate enough to make it to a “one percent” institution. It would also truly demonstrate a commitment to the public interest of the United States, perhaps one of the most powerful reasons to insure that every student willing and able to attend college can do so.

[My book on the college process will be out in late 2015. Details and excerpts to come.]



About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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2 Responses to “One Percent” Institutions and the Public Interest

  1. Lillis, Julie says:

    I love this post, Will!!!

    Julie Lillis Hackley School

    Sent from my iPhone


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