Reversing the Victory of Elitism over Meritocracy

A recent trio of announcements relating to higher education emerged separately but deserve to be linked. By connecting these breaking news stories, we can see just how insidiously the quest for “excellence” has eclipsed every other competing social value, even in the world of higher education.

First are the annual reports of high-achieving students being crushed by learning that they were not offered admission to the elite colleges they had chosen — and that represented the essential next step toward the successful lives they had imagined for themselves. (This year’s letters to the editor from distraught students and parents were in The New York Times on April 22.) Failures at the age of 18! And all because they were going to have to settle for a college that was not at the very top of their lists!

Yet all these students had done is what they had been conditioned to do, almost from birth: work very hard earning good grades and accumulating extracurricular activities in order to join the growing competition for the relatively few seats available at elite schools, all in the name of “excellence.” Nothing less than “excellence” would suffice. The fact that the large majority of these high school seniors would be rejected or “wait-listed” — and based on the tiny number of students who are ultimately accepted off the wait list, “wait listed” seems best defined as “being placed in limbo and ignored for several months before being rejected” — thereby leading to senior angst on a massive scale, is just the price one pays in striving for “excellence.” (In other societies, this whole business might qualify as child abuse.)

Second, Amherst College, in the midst of a $650-million capital campaign, announced on its website that it had recently received a single anonymous gift of $100 million.

Third, in news widely covered by the media, Mount Ida College of Newton, Mass., founded in 1899, said that it will be closing its doors at the end of this academic year, forcing its 1,300 undergraduates (plus prospective freshmen) to find other institutions where they might start or complete their post-secondary education.

Consider the relationship of these three stories.

The elite institutions are not increasing the number of seats they have available for new students, yet they are under increasing pressure to admit more students who are high-achieving, but low-income — even as they are seeing growth in the numbers of highly qualified and relatively affluent applicants. The result is a continuing decline in their acceptance rates, thereby breaking the hearts of even more high school seniors. (The acceptance rate of applicants at top liberal arts colleges is generally now around 15 percent; it is in the single digits at elite national universities such as Harvard, Yale and Stanford.)

Amherst College has fewer than 1,900 students. Now that it is $100 million richer, the college says it will construct a building and hire more faculty, but it has announced no plans to add students. Amherst students may have a marginally better educational experience because of this gift, but there won’t be any increase in the size of the Amherst student body. The number of students applying to Amherst will probably increase, but the freshman class will still have fewer than 500 students. Accordingly, the gift will actually reduce, rather than enhance, the likelihood of any given applicant being offered admission to Amherst.

And that’s regrettable, because for the past 15 years Amherst has been ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the second-best liberal arts college in the nation, just behind Williams College. Ah, but in the early years of this century, Amherst was ranked first, ahead of Williams. What would it take for Amherst to reassume its top position?

As it happens, the Williams endowment is about $200 million larger than that of Amherst. (That both colleges boast endowments of well over $2 billion — or more than $1 million of endowment per student — evidently is not yet sufficient.) Would a larger endowment put Amherst back on top? A successful capital campaign for $650 million may answer the question.

But does anyone other than the students and alumni of Amherst or Williams care which of them is number one and which number two? Moreover, the cost of burnishing Amherst’s already lustrous reputation may come at the expense of prospective college students elsewhere. Mount Ida went out of business because it could not attract a sufficient number of students who could afford to pay its tuition, despite deep discounts. That same $100 million would have kept Mount Ida in business by allowing them to increase financial aid for needy students. Instead, we have a closed college, and 1,300 students (many of whom are low-income) being forced to look elsewhere. The $100 million gift may provide a marginal benefit to Amherst, but it is not a gift that provides any benefit to American higher education in general.

I’m not suggesting that Amherst and Mount Ida were in competition for the gift; it’s almost surely the case that the anonymous donor at Amherst has a connection to that college and no connection to Mount Ida. Yet although current federal tax policy places a modest surcharge on endowment earnings for a relative handful of extremely wealthy colleges and universities, it is still the case that the gifts themselves are not taxed, a policy that encourages wealthy individuals to enhance still further the endowments of already exceptionally rich colleges and universities. And there is no end in sight. The growing inequality we see in the wealth and income of individuals and families is mirrored in the world of higher education. The “1 percent” syndrome also exists in higher education, and the chasm in wealth between the elite campuses and all others continues to widen.

This is a situation that does not bode well for our country. The students at these elite universities are disproportionately from families in the top 10 percent of wealth and income. Although Amherst meets the financial needs of its students, almost half of them have no demonstrated financial need and are paying the full list price, which for the current year is almost $70,000 annually (including room and board) — a figure well beyond the reach of the great majority of American families.

Why, with an endowment of over $2 billion, is Amherst’s list price so high? Two reasons: first, its competitors charge about the same amount. A significantly lower price might suggest a “product” of lesser quality. Second, a high list price discourages most people from applying in the first place, suggesting that the colleges think that families at the very top of income and wealth prefer to be with people of similar means. Four years at Amherst costs more than the initiation fee to join Mar-a-Lago; the mere fact that a person is present says a good deal about his or her wealth and power.

Too harsh? Take a look at the Williams College view book that is sent to prospective students, an oversized brochure that gets right to the point. On the second page, in capital letters and a huge font, it reads:

“EXPERIENCE

THE BENEFITS

OF A

$2.5 BILLION

ENDOWMENT”

And in case your eyes slid too quickly over the words, “$2.5 BILLION” is printed in gold.

The following page of the Williams’ brochure is focused on the specifics: high graduation rate, low student-faculty ratio, acceptance at famous graduate schools (all the examples are in the Ivy League) — and high starting salaries, high mid-career salaries and the Williams alumni network to get those well-paying jobs.

The quality of the education? The transformative consequences of four years at Williams? Personal development? Those don’t warrant the big type. But in small type, on the same page, Williams tells us: “With strength comes responsibility. That’s why we use our endowment to level the playing field.”

Which playing field would that be? Polo? The one named for a student’s grandfather? How can an elitist school claim to be leveling the playing field when its students are overwhelmingly from the top tier of family incomes?

Federal tax policy has not only permitted but encouraged the development of a set of colleges and universities that are the educational counterparts of exclusive country clubs, where the price of admission deters average people from even considering applying. By allowing wealthy donors to make tax-exempt gifts to the very schools to which their children and grandchildren will be applying, we have created a wealth-based aristocracy that is both self-perpetuating and largely closed to those who would aspire to climb the socioeconomic ladder. A young person of modest means will not have the advantages of a great K-12 education, summer enrichment programs, special tutors and the many opportunities that are commonplace for the children of privilege, and will instead have to hope to be among the tiny number of applicants selected by elite schools who are not of the social elite.

So what to do? In various ways, professional sports leagues have addressed the problem of having too much success repeatedly concentrated in the same handful of teams. To address the same problem, higher education might consider creating a semblance of parity among a larger number of schools than the miniscule few now occupying the top rung. Specifically, I suggest that we follow the lead of the National Football League, which strives for some level of team-performance parity by capping the size of the salary pool for players. The salary cap ensures that rich big market teams do not have a built-in advantage over teams in small markets that lack equal access to financial resources.

How can that idea be applied to higher education?

A first step might be to eliminate the tax deduction for donors on gifts made to any college or university that already has more than, say, $1 million of endowment per student. An endowment at that level would permit colleges to draw down $50,000 per student per year — a figure that should itself be sufficient to educate the student without a need for additional funding (although presumably the college would still be charging for tuition and fees).

I recognize that the situation is far more complicated at those universities with extensive graduate and professional programs, where dedicated endowment accounts are restricted in how they can be used and where expenses can be much higher. So, for purposes of starting a discussion, my recommendation is limited to undergraduate education and the endowment accounts that are used for that purpose.

But unless and until we begin to swing the pendulum away from inequity and back toward parity, America will continue to be beset by the looming educational problem of the day: a rigged system of higher education where those with wealth and power are hugely advantaged in gaining access to a high-quality college education relative to those who have neither. The corollaries of this problem are a decline in the average quality of a college education; costs rising faster than students and their families can afford; rapidly accumulating debt from college loans and rising default rates on those loans, especially from those who started college, but did not finish; and a widening gap in income and quality of life between the college educated and those who are not, with whites and Asians disproportionately represented in the first group and blacks and Latinos disproportionately represented in the second.

That is not the America I want for my grandchildren. Let’s change it.

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