Good reads—Higher Education: No. 1



A cluster of recent articles has addressed the growing issue of access to higher education for students from poor and working-class backgrounds.

Published in The Atlantic, Jordan Weissmann’s “How Colleges Are Selling Out the Poor to Court the Rich” opens with an assertion that is absolutely true but will come as a major surprise to most Americans: “Neat fact: If the federal government were to take all of the money it pours into various forms of financial aid each year, it could go ahead and make tuition free, or close to it, for every student at every public college in the country.” Weissmann then references an earlier article in which he addressed the exploitation of federal student grant and loan programs by for-profit colleges and universities whose revenue derives largely, if not almost entirely, from those programs. Here, he shifts his attention to the ways in which federal grants and loans to less economically well-off students are being used by a growing number of private and public colleges and universities to offset tuition reductions for students from affluent backgrounds. The private institutions are typically those with small enrollments and limited endowments. Most of the public institutions are in eight states in which the model of “high tuition/high aid” provided by elite private institutions has been implemented, largely unsuccessfully, to offset steep declines in state subsidies. In the mid-1990s, private institutions provided almost twice the amount of need-based as merit-based direct aid to students. Academically gifted but less economically well-off students often received enough aid directly from these institutions to cover most of the costs beyond the grants and loans provided through federal programs. Today, they are receiving less direct aid from the institutions, and those funds are being spread out to cover more modest financial aid offers that might entice more affluent students to enroll. In a recent study of almost 300 institutions at which 25% or more of the students receive Pell grants, Stephen Burd of the New America Foundation demonstrates the dramatic shift from need-based to merit-based aid in this way: the out-of-pocket cost to students receiving Pell grants is now almost exactly the same as the direct institutional aid provided to more affluent students in the “merit” category. Nationally, private institutions now provide more merit-based than need-based direct aid to students, and that trend is being replicated at an increasing number of public institutions.

[Weismann’s article in available at:

In “Why American Colleges Are Becoming a Force for Inequality,” an article also published in The Atlantic and with a focus that complements that of Weissmann’s article, Josh Freedman begins by citing a major study by Caroline Hoxby of Stanford and Christopher Avery of Harvard, which shows that the great majority academically qualified students from lower-income households do not even consider applying to elite colleges and universities. Hoxby and Avery argue that most of these students simply are not aware that they are academically qualified to apply to such schools. But Freedman then points out that even if a mechanism were found to insure that more of these students applied to elite institutions, the institutions’ financial models—excepting those relatively few institutions with enormous endowments–would not allow them to accommodate such students at the expense of denying admittance to a higher percentage of very affluent students. Currently, slightly more than a third of high-achieving high school students are from households in the top quartile of family incomes, but almost three-quarters of the students attending elite colleges and universities are from such households. Using the current tuition and student demographics at George Washington University as an illustration, Freedman shows that if the university admitted one high-achieving student from the lowest quartile of family incomes for every two high-achieving students from the highest quartile of family incomes (proportionately reflecting the percentage high-achieving students in each income group), the university would have to raise its current advertised cost of about $59,000 per year to about $89,000 per year in order to cover the financial needs of the students from poor backgrounds. Freedman notes that public institutions, which ought to provide an affordable option for academically gifted but economically disadvantaged students, are also getting caught up in the competition for “reputation” as ratings proliferate. Many flagship public universities are now as geared toward attracting students from affluent backgrounds as the elite private institutions have been. Finally, Freedman notes that while technological options such as MOOCs offer the possibility of lowering costs, they also will widen the gap between elite and other institutions and thereby exacerbate, rather than diminish, the disparities in opportunity and access caused by widening disparities in income.

[Freedman’s article in available at:

Syndicated by the Associated Press, the news story “U.Va. among Nation’s Least Economically Diverse Schools” appeared in the May 13, 2013 edition of the Staunton, Virginia NewsLeader. The story highlights the findings in the report from the New America Foundation related specifically to institutions in Virginia: “The analysis found that low-income students suffered in states such as Virginia where schools sought to make up for dwindling state support by raising tuition while also increasing financial aid to lower-income students. The report says U.Va., the College of William and Mary, and Virginia Tech should be ‘a cautionary tale in the debate over the privatization of public higher education’ and the high-tuition, high-aid strategy. All three schools were granted greater autonomy by the state ‘in part on the promise’ of increasing enrollment of low-income students with disappointing results, the report says. . . . While [U. Va.] has ‘gone to great lengths’ to recruit low-income students from poorer parts of the state, if also attracts large numbers of out-of-state students from more-affluent families.” At the opposite end of the spectrum, institutions such as the University of Richmond have taken up the slack, increasing the enrollment of in-state students receiving Pell grants by 75% over the last six years. As commendable as those results have been, they do not mitigate the strong case that the changes in the state’s funding of higher education have led to a two-tiered system largely reflecting the socio-economic backgrounds of the students enrolled at the elite institutions and at the rest of the institutions in the state.

[This article is available at:]