The failed promise of college and mobility

I’ve been meaning to do a post on this for a long time, but recent events have, obviously, inspired me to finally get around to it.

Anyway, we might think colleges are there to help people move up the socio-economic ladder, but so much of what they do is serve the progeny of the most-advantaged Americans.  As the Upshot headline puts it, “Some Colleges Have More Students From the Top 1 Percent.  Than the Bottom 60. Find Yours.”

Students at elite colleges are even richer than experts realized, according to a new study based on millions of anonymous tax filings and tuition records.

At 38 colleges in America, including five in the Ivy League – DartmouthPrincetonYalePenn and Brown – more students came from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60 percent…

Roughly one in four of the richest students attend an elite college – universities that typically cluster toward the top of annual rankings (you can find more on our definition of “elite” at the bottom).

In contrast, less than one-half of 1 percent of children from the bottom fifth of American families attend an elite college; less than half attend any college at all…

Colleges often promote their role in helping poorer students rise in life, and their commitments to affordability. But some elite colleges have focused more on being affordable to low-income families than on expanding access. “Free tuition only helps if you can get in,” said Danny Yagan, an assistant professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the authors of the study…

These patterns are important because previous research has found that there are many highly qualified lower-income students who do not attend selective colleges – and because the low- and middle-income students who do attend top colleges fare almost as well as rich students.

Even though they face challenges that other students do not, lower-income students end up earning almost as much on average as affluent students who attend the same college.

And here’s the cool Upshot tool to find your college.  Obviously, I took a look at NC State and Duke:

Easily the most striking statistic to me in all of this is that the median family income of NC State students is $112,000.  And NC State in no way has a reputation as a place for the socio-economic elite (that’s definitely UNC’s in-state reputation).  I’ve been using this statistics to shock my students (most guess way lower) ever since I learned of it.

And, as for my alma mater.  Not exactly surprised, but, my goodness what a bastion of elitism.  I wonder how much this has changed (probably not all that much) from my time in the early 1990s.

And, while we’re at it, Fred Hiatt writes, “We’re still paying for rich people to go to college. Why?”

Republicans these days are full of tender concern that government welfare programs may weaken the moral fiber of their recipients. That is why they insist that benefits go only to those who prove their fitness of character through employment or job training.

Unless the benefits are going to the rich and middle class, that is, in which case all concern evaporates. When it comes to in-state tuition rates, for example, which constitute one of government’s most generous handouts, no one seems to worry about a breakdown of family values or the debilitating loss of pride in self-sufficiency.

Maybe you haven’t thought of in-state tuition as a welfare program. But an upper-class family can send a child to a flagship school like, say, the University of Maryland for about $10,000 a year. That student is receiving an education that the College Park campus has determined is worth more than $32,000 a year — and plenty of out-of-state students are willing to pay as much. So by the time the student graduates, the family will have gotten a government handout to the tune of $88,000 — and no one will have asked the parents for proof that they’re employed… [emphases mine]

After I made this argument once before, four years ago, a paper published by the Brookings Institution took issue with me. The authors of the 2016 paper, Jason Delisle and Kim Dancy, calculated that the benefits of in-state tuition don’t flow disproportionately to the wealthy, and therefore there is no problem.

“Low-income students account for 37.4 percent of students enrolled in public universities and receive 38.8 percent of all indirect subsidies,” they wrote. “High-income students, who the conventional wisdom says receive a larger share of the subsidies, actually receive a slightly smaller share (19.5 percent) than their enrollment (21.1 percent).”

Well, one answer would be: In the 21st century, college is as essential as high school was in the 20th, and so public college today should be as free as public high school became then. This argument makes a lot of sense. But its proponents generally don’t explain where they will find the money to make it happen, so wouldn’t it be logical to begin by helping the youths who most need the help?

A second answer is that state taxpayers are willing to support state university systems on the understanding that their children, if qualified, will be given affordable access. Break the bargain, and you will lose any sense of community buy-in.

I don’t know what to make of all of this except one clear thing– we need to do better.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to The failed promise of college and mobility

  1. Nicole K. says:

    A median family income of $112,000 isn’t that shocking to me, and it is pretty close to what I would have guessed.

    One thing that I have observed watching my parents both serve churches that are primarily made up of low-income families is the huge cultural division between the working class and the middle class in terms of values and priorities. I have seen more than one example of parents who actually intentionally sabotage their kids chances of going to away to college because their 17 and 18 year old kids are basically raising their younger children more than they are and have been doing it for the majority of their younger siblings lives. I have seen 17-18 year old girls whose number one priority is having kids as fast as possible even though they have no ability to provide for them. I could go on with more examples, but my point is that that is so far removed from the way that I was raised and how most people I know were raised that it’s hard to wrap my head around and makes me feel uncomfortable when I am around it. I honestly don’t know what can be done to change it.

    $112,000 is hardly a family income that I would consider to be in the economic elite. It is on the lower end of the upper middle class and about what I would expect to see for a two-income family with college-age kids, especially when you consider the median age for having a child is now 26 years old.

    I think it’s terrible that there is such a cultural divide between the lower and middle class, but I think that the lack of lower income people in more selective schools is a symptom of much larger cultural and social dynamics that are not likely to change much anytime soon, especially when at least half of the country believes being poor is a choice.

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