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.