Gracing the pages of legacy media over recent years, a particular take has been presented as a rational, bipartisan solution to inequality at elite universities: enrollment expansion. “Many well-known public universities have expanded the number of students they serve without sacrificing quality,” writes Jeffrey Selingo in The Washington Post. “But for too long, our most selective schools have benefited from public funding and billions of dollars in tax breaks while acting more like exclusive clubs than institutions with a responsibility to educate our nation’s growing population.”
By enrolling more students, the argument goes, prestigious universities could theoretically democratize access to world-class resources, facilitate social mobility, and chip away at an enduring elitism. It isn’t a perfect solution—as some have pointed out, students would likely just filter up the status ladder. But on its face, it seems an honorable attempt to address higher education’s legitimacy crisis in a time of low acceptance rates at the top, struggling enrollment at the bottom, and record high tuition.
It wasn’t until I began to dig into my own school that I began to see how flawed the effort really is. During a fundraising livestream, Cornell University President Martha Pollack revealed that enrollment for students who receive financial aid has remained “relatively flat” since the mid-1990s, while enrollment for students who don’t receive financial aid “has grown quite significantly.” According to this data, it appears that virtually all of the roughly 1,500 undergrad seats Cornell has added over the past three decades have been filled by non-aided students. The administration’s latest fundraising campaign seeks to redress this damning trend by committing $500 million in donor funds to increasing the aided population, but tuition has so exploded at Cornell that some students from higher-income families still receive financial aid. Low-income students are used in promotional materials, but for each one awarded grant aid, there are several times more wealthy students paying full price to offset the cost.
At Harvard, however, annual investment returns from a $53 billion endowment currently cover nearly 40 percent of the school’s operating budget. If that growth continues at the projected pace, the university may become financially self-sufficient as soon as the next decade. With such financial security, Harvard claims, most of their students will graduate debt-free. In theory, addressing the issue of socioeconomic diversity could be in the cards next.
But a post-scarcity paradise at Harvard is nothing to celebrate. It is only possible because that wealth was hoarded at the cost of imposing austerity on others—such as campus service workers, local residents, students taking on loan debt, grad workers, and adjunct faculty—along with the inextricable exploitation from the investments themselves. When all is said and done, the privilege is for Harvard alone to enjoy. This is neither a replicable model for other schools to follow, nor a desirable one.
Universities have long justified development and expansion by arguing that “what’s good for us is good for you.” Urban historian Davarian Baldwin challenges this idea in his book In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower, shining a light on universities’ increasing influence over labor, policing, real estate, and health care in America’s cities. Baldwin takes us from New York to Hartford to Chicago, where Black and brown residents living near universities have long borne the brunt of expansion-imposed displacement—and the policing that inevitably follows—all while being left out of the “wealth generation” happening just blocks away.
In New York City, wealthy institutions like Columbia, NYU, and Cornell have waged aggressive campaigns to grow their empires, to the frustration of local residents. Meanwhile, it is the public City University of New York system, with a stellar record of spurring social mobility, that continues to struggle for funding. What we need is more CUNY, not more Ivies—which, as Selingo agrees, eat up public-subsidized tax exemptions while failing to serve the public good.
What expansionism looks like in practice is often a conglomeration effect. Financially struggling universities are being bought up in mergers, and 86 different satellite schools have planted the US flag across the Global North as of 2020. It’s unclear how the overseas campus trend will fare moving forward. As NYU professor Andrew Ross observes, the new offshore might be online, for better or worse. An embrace of online college could see degrees become full-blown transnational consumer goods, sure to be advertised as a radical democratic project.
We can’t undo the project of exclusion that our system of elite higher ed was built on simply by multiplying the size of current elite universities, or cloning them and plopping them down in other cities. Not only does expanding enrollment at elite schools offer no guarantee of actually democratizing access; it is financially impossible to achieve true socioeconomic diversity under schools’ current business model unless they hoard their endowments to planetary proportions. In the end, the proposal offers a convenient escape route to university administrators scrambling for a case against endowment taxation.
There’s an alternative that doesn’t involve endowment austerity or conglomeration—where we are all invited in as equal citizens rather than consumers. That alternative is a public education system that isn’t for sale, but open to all, accountable to the public through democratic governance, and committed to serving the needs of the community rather than the interests of private capital.
At the local level, organizers can begin building such a future by fighting for concessions such as payment in lieu of property taxes (PILOT) that redistribute money for public services. At the state and federal level, endowment finance must be quelled with stricter taxation. We need to overhaul a broken system, not bankroll more business as usual. Our collective task is to dare to locate hope outside the ivory tower, and find the outline of a better future in its shadow.