Stanford University received a lot of good publicity when it announced in March that it would waive undergraduate tuition for families making less than $125,000 a year. The initiative was one of several of late responding to the growing problem of access to higher education: economic stratification at elite colleges, rising tuition and student debt at all colleges. The following month, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation debuted a $1 million annual prize to promote economic diversity at selective schools. Starbucks is nearing the end of the first year of a program, conducted in partnership with Arizona State, to offer a partial tuition benefit to the company’s employees.
These efforts may be admirable, but collectively they only reinforce the system that created those inequalities in the first place. They are symptomatic of the way we have come to address our educational needs—indeed, our collective needs in general.
Call it Clintonism, to go along with Reaganism. Reaganism—tax cuts, deregulation, anti-unionism—has meant that the rich and affluent receive the lion’s share of disposable income. As president, Bill Clinton ratified Reaganism as a bipartisan consensus. As a former president, through the Clinton Global Initiative and other efforts, he has led the way in extending its logic from the economic to the moral sphere, the sphere of philanthropy, nonprofits, do-gooding, “service.”
Now that the rich have all the cash, and raising taxes is considered unthinkable, we have no choice but to rely increasingly on the rich—whether individuals, institutions, or corporations—to do the things that governments should do, including funding higher education. (And we’re supposed to be grateful, to boot.)
Never mind the fact that private giving is usually self-interested to some degree, which means that it depends upon the whims and calculations of the giver. Stanford’s announcement is best understood not as a form of altruism, but as a way of keeping pace with its competitors. Princeton offers a comparable package, and Harvard and Yale are not far behind. The recent decisions among selective private colleges to increase financial aid have also been driven by a desire to protect their tax exemptions from congressional critics like Senator Charles Grassley.
But a larger problem is scale. The initial class of Starbucks enrollees numbers 1,500 out of the company’s 135,000 domestic employees—not to mention the millions of Americans who are shut out of college for financial reasons.
As for Stanford and its peers, only about 15 percent of students at selective colleges come from the bottom half of the income distribution, a number that hasn’t budged since the 1990s. Students who enjoy those generous tuition waivers represent no more than a minority of enrollees at Stanford, Princeton, Harvard, and Yale. More to the point, they constitute a tiny fraction of all American college students—several thousand out of several million.
No matter how well-intentioned their administrators may be, private colleges will always have to cater to the rich and affluent: to cultivate donors by giving their children preferential treatment, to favor “legacy” applicants (16 percent of students at Harvard, with an admissions rate of 30 percent, more than five times that of the general pool), to maintain a critical mass of full-paying customers (a reason for the growing number of international students). Most important, by maintaining an admissions system that asks not only for top grades and scores but also for endless extracurricular activities, these schools give huge advantages to families who are capable of pouring resources into their children’s development. For some reason, we continue to refer to this arrangement as meritocracy.
All of this will shed some light on two other recent stories about elite education. One concerns the efforts of first-generation college students at places like Columbia and Harvard to make their institutions (and peers) aware of the problems of being poor at a rich school. Not only are such students relatively small in number, they are confronting a profoundly alien environment, one created by and for the wealthy. It’s good that colleges and fellow students are responding well to those initiatives; it’s remarkable that they had to be told about these issues in the first place.
The second story comes from the other end of the economic spectrum: the new cluster of teen suicides—four in the past academic year—in Palo Alto, California. I say “new,” because a similar outbreak occurred between 2009 and 2010, claiming five young lives. “Please, no more endless discussions about what exactly it is that is wrong with our schools,” wrote Carolyn Walworth, a junior at Palo Alto High School, in a piece that went viral. “[A]bove all, no more empty promises…. It is time to get to work.”
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Palo Alto may be an extreme example, but, as everybody knows by now, the same kind of unrelenting academic stress exists across the country. Until the way we pay for higher education changes—as long as we maintain an artificial scarcity of educational resources—then nothing will change for children and adolescents in Palo Alto and thousands of other communities. Endless discussions are all that parents and adults will be able to offer.
The real problem is not that so many students are denied access to the most prestigious colleges for financial reasons. The real problem—for the poor and affluent alike—is that everyone is trying to squeeze into four or 12 or 100 schools.
What we need to do is recommit ourselves to low- or no-cost high-quality higher education, as we did in the decades after World War II. That will take a lot more than talk. It will take money—yes, tax money, not from the 1 percent alone, but from the whole of the top 10 percent, whose share of national income now stands at 50 percent, an all-time high. In other words, from the so-called meritocracy (including many readers of this magazine), the beneficiaries of our massively unequal system.
Is raising taxes to pay for great, free public higher education really unthinkable? The recent increases to the minimum wage, some of them approved by voters in red states, were also unthinkable—until they happened. Since the financial collapse in 2008, and especially since the Occupy movement in 2011, America has woken up to the enormous inequality that has developed under Reaganism. Nothing is unthinkable at this point.
In January, President Obama released a proposal for free community college. In April, a group of Democratic senators and representatives, including Elizabeth Warren, introduced a resolution designed to ensure that students can graduate from public colleges and universities debt-free. Among the Democratic presidential candidates, Martin O’Malley has signed on to the proposal. Bernie Sanders has gone even further, floating a plan to make four-year public college free at a cost of $70 billion a year, to be paid for by a tax on Wall Street transactions.
That leaves Hillary Clinton. In the first major policy address of her campaign last month, she spoke of making “college affordable and available to all.” A specific proposal is said to be coming in mid-July. Will it signal a new direction, or just the same old Clintonism?