Educational Wealth Gap

Ideas and Issues

New Orleans: I was reminded in Chicago this week that May Day is not only the great international day of solidarity, but also “decision” day for tens of thousands of high school seniors, marking one of the more important milestones in their young futures as they select a college.  The lovely young daughter of dear friends and co-workers was struggling to decide between a host of some of the best colleges in the country, exactly where she would learn the most, be happiest, and prepare best for the magical adventure of her life.  Her parents, being community and labor organizers – my comrades!, were also struggling in the doting way of all parents between what would make their eldest most happy and how in the world they would ever finance the package, no matter where she chose to go!

 It is not a comfort clearly, but the dilemma they were facing with their typical courage and clear eyed conviction, is the dilemma that working families are in fact losing today all over the country as their children make similar choices.  There is a growing “wealth gap” in higher education that is being increasingly documented and redefining in a more severe way what Americans actually mean by elite education.

 In the 42 most selective public, state universities – including California, New York, and Michigan as outstanding examples – 40% of this year’s freshman come from families making more than $100000.  Only 5 years ago the number was less than one-third – 32% — according to the Higher Education Research Institute as quoted in a recent New York Times article.  Keep in mind that only 20% of American families make that kind of bread. 

 In 2000 some 55% of freshmen at all 250 of the most exclusive and elite educational institutions – public and private – came from households in the top quadrille of family income.  Only five years before in 1995 the number was 46% in the top quadrille.  Make a safe bet that in 2005, the number will be up significantly again.   At Harvard the median family income is $150000.  At the public University of Michigan about half make more than $100000 per family, and half make less.

 Some educators are expressing surprise, but one wonders why.  There has been an increasing wealth gap in this country accelerating for the last decade or more and the current federal administration is committed to increasing the gap.  Why would increasing class differences not be reflected in higher education at elite universities?  If anything one should not be shocked to find that such institutions are modeling the wealth gap.

 There are few of us with children on the threshold of these decisions that cannot name handfuls of cases where these bright lights with such radiant futures are forced to choices driven by economics.  Even crossing the line into the top quadrille, when one looks at the gross price tags of elite education that now run from $120000 to $160000 for four years, the package has to be outstanding for these solidly middle income families to shoulder the weight involved in carrying half of that amount in debt and desperate with jobs increasingly tentative and contingent even at these relatively upper levels. 

 A good friend who is a professor at an outstanding public university stated the obvious to me a couple of years ago – that hardly a percentage point or two separated the quality of education between the top universities and an overwhelming number of the rest, and most of that could be made up easily by the student’s application.  All true, if one were talking simply about education.  All wrong, though when one is talking about equity and opportunity.  Doors open.  Doors slam shut.

 In the simple decisions of my friends’ daughter magnified in smiles, tears, hope, and desperate resignation hundreds of thousands of times over, we are watching the inexorable march to an increasingly class bound and destined society.  

 Such decisions should be on some other day than May Day, because there’s no solidarity here at all.