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Is College Merely Helping Those Who Need Help Least?


[ What college admissions officers really want: Read an excerpt of “The Years That Matter Most.” ]

Two types of stratification are happening here. The most obvious is the concentration of wealthy students at a few top schools. Tough rightly calls out the Ivy League and its ilk for capitalizing on positive press while offering little in the way of actual change. It remains the case that in most of the Ivy League, at least two-thirds of every class come from the top income quintile, while those from the bottom quintile account for less than 4 percent. In some cases the imbalance is extreme. Several Ivies admit more students from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the bottom 60 percent combined.

Tough also identifies another type of stratification that is less conspicuous but perhaps more consequential: not the inequities between the students, but rather the growing inequities between the institutions themselves. Until recently, the funding gap between our state colleges and our elite schools was fairly modest. But since 1990, that gap has exploded, so that elite colleges now have an endowment-dollars-per-student ratio of more than $1 million, compared with less than $35,000 per student at a typical college.

Tough proposes two explanations for this widening gap: politicians and donors. Since 2008, state legislatures have cut approximately $14 billion in funding from public universities, or approximately 20 percent. These schools make up the difference with tuition hikes, which forces them to compete with one another for the small slice of wealthy out-of-state students who can pay double or triple fare. This is higher education reduced to free-market principles, a world in which universities behave more like businesses than schools, pursuing customers rather than students.

Meanwhile, philanthropic giving to the most selective schools has skyrocketed. As Tough points out, wealthy universities have wealthy alumni, who, after benefiting from an elite education, are even better positioned to donate large sums of money. This is the final cog in the inequality machine, an intense cycle of wealth concentration that Tough calls “unsustainable — and yet, at the same time, unstoppable.”

Some of the imbalances Tough describes are simply breathtaking. In 2009, President Obama asked Congress for $12 billion to revitalize the country’s community-college system. He didn’t get it. But between 2013 and 2018, a lone American university — already the richest in the world — raised $9.6 billion in a single fund-raising campaign. And so the machine turns.

The apparent weakness of this book is its forgettable title; the content, however, is indelible and extraordinary, a powerful reckoning with just how far we’ve allowed reality to drift from our ideals. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of higher education to the present moment. As a country we are divided economically and politically, and education sits conspicuously at the center of both divides. Whether you have a college degree turns out to be one of the strongest predictors of both your political preferences and your income.

Reading Tough’s book, you cannot fail to notice that these three factors are related — that we have allowed the inequities of our economic system to be reproduced in our education system, and that the result is poisoning our politics. We then ask ourselves why so many Americans no longer believe in college or degrees. Or facts. Or science. Why they perceive education as not for them but rather as a good distributed by the elites to elites.

On the other hand, there is not much motivation among people of means to reform education — to give less money to Princeton and more to Penn State, or to send both their taxes and their children to public colleges. But for those wondering why the American people have lost faith in higher learning, the answer is straightforward: If we want others to believe in public education, we first have to believe in it ourselves.


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