Wednesday, April 25, 2007
College financial aid just got sexy. Well, it got exciting. With New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (the second coming of Spitzer?) on the war path against financial aid officials whose personal interests conflict with their responsibility to help students pay for the education they deserve, the story has hit the front pages.
While white-collar crime grabs the headlines, the underlying problem of middle- and low-income students still struggling to pay for college keeps getting worse. As higher-income students maintain, and continue to expand, their admissions advantage and higher-ed institutions react by reaching out to low-income students–often with an emphasis on first-generation college students–it’s those in the middle that feel the heat.
“The institutions are doing better, but now it is the middle two quarters that are getting pancaked in the process,” said Georgetown Senior Associate Dean Hugh Cloke, who has been involved in admissions for 35 years.
In the end, it’s not just access, but also equity and diversity that count. While getting into strong public universities can be difficult, it’s even harder for many American students to find their way to a top-tier private institution–and then pay for it. An article in The New York Review of Books by Columbia University Professor Andrew Delbanco aptly titled “Scandals of Higher Education” dissects this problem. Delbanco notes that in the latter part of the 20th century the number of students from the lowest income quartile at private universities has stayed around 10 percent, while the percentage of students from the top quartile rose from about thirty percent to fifty percent.
“In short,” he writes, “there are very few poor students at America’s top colleges, and a large and growing number of rich ones.”
Since 2001, the median cost of college educations has gone up 41 percent, to yearly average fees of $22,218 for a four-year private institution and $5,836 for a four-year public institution. Meanwhile, the median family income in the United States is about $46,000. And Harvard’s dean of admissions was quoted in the Crimson stating that “middle-income” Harvard families have a household income between $110,000 and $200,000.
These middle class misapprehensions aren’t limited to Harvard, though. I exchanged email with Monica Inzer, Dean of Admission at Hamilton College, number 17 on the U.S. News and World Report list of best liberal arts colleges in the country. Hamilton recently made a much-heralded switch from giving merit-based aid to offering only need-based aid, traditionally a sign that a school no longer has to work to create a strong class academically (all the Ivies use this system), but instead needs to attract diversity.
But it’s hard to understand what kind of income diversity they’re attracting.