April 22, 2004
As Wealthy Fill Top Colleges, New Efforts to Level the Field
NN ARBOR, Mich. — At prestigious universities around the country, from flagship state colleges to the Ivy League, more and more students from upper-income families are edging out those from the middle class, according to university data.
The change is fast becoming one of the biggest issues in higher education.
More members of this year's freshman class at the University of Michigan have parents making at least $200,000 a year than have parents making less than the national median of about $53,000, according to a survey of Michigan students. At the most selective private universities across the country, more fathers of freshmen are doctors than are hourly workers, teachers, clergy members, farmers or members of the military — combined.
Experts say the change in the student population is a result of both steep tuition increases and the phenomenal efforts many wealthy parents put into preparing their children to apply to the best schools. It is easy to see here, where BMW 3-series sedans are everywhere and students pay up to $800 a month to live off campus, enough to rent an entire house in parts of Michigan.
Some colleges are starting to take action. Officials long accustomed to discussing racial diversity are instead taking steps to improve economic diversity. They say they are worried that their universities are reproducing social advantage instead of serving as an engine of mobility.
"It's very much an issue of fundamental fairness," Lawrence H. Summers, the president of Harvard, said in an interview. "An important purpose of institutions like Harvard is to give everybody a shot at the American dream."
The University of Maryland recently said it would no longer ask students from families making less than $21,000 a year to take out loans, and would instead give them scholarships to cover tuition. Officials at Harvard, the University of North Carolina and the University of Virginia all recently announced similar, even more generous policies.
Stanford and Yale have altered early-admission programs, partly out of a concern that they give an unfair advantage to students who do not need to compare financial-aid offers before they can commit to a college.
Over all, at the 42 most selective state universities, including the flagship campuses in California, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan and New York, 40 percent of this year's freshmen come from families making more than $100,000, up from about 32 percent in 1999, according to the Higher Education Research Institute. Nationwide, fewer than 20 percent of families make that much money.
The recent increase has continued a two-decade trend that extends well beyond the best-known colleges.
In 2000, about 55 percent of freshmen at the nation's 250 most selective colleges, public and private, were from the highest-earning fourth of households, compared with 46 percent in 1985, according to the institute, which is based at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The number from the bottom fourth dipped slightly over that period, while those from the middle 50 percent fell sharply. In many cases, the less wealthy students went to less selective schools, including lower-ranked campuses of state universities.
"There has been over the last several decades a whole slew of efforts to level the playing field for college admissions," said Alexander W. Astin, a professor of higher education at U.C.L.A. "In spite of all these efforts, access for poor kids and kids of less well-educated parents has not improved. And for kids in the middle, it's actually declined."
"This isn't good news, and it's somewhat surprising," he added.
If anything, some college officials said, the statistics may understate the level of student wealth because they rely on a survey of freshmen. When officials at Binghamton University, part of the State University of New York, matched survey data with financial-aid forms, they found that students often listed their parents' income as lower than it really was, said Cheryl Brown, the director of undergraduate admissions.
At Harvard, for instance, financial-aid forms suggest that the median family income is about $150,000.
The increasing wealth on the nation's most prestigious campuses has gone largely unnoticed until recently, though, obscured by two other trends, education scholars say.
Over the last 40 years, colleges have become more diverse in other ways, admitting far more Asian-American, black, Jewish and Latino students than they once did. Many colleges also draw from a broader geographic base, with Michigan taking more out-of-state applicants, for example, Ivy League universities relying less on students from the Northeast and almost all colleges recruiting more foreign students.
Colleges have meanwhile increased tuition rapidly, causing the number of students on financial aid to jump and creating an impression that they are from a wider economic spectrum than in the past. In reality, financial aid simply stretches far higher up the income ladder than before.
At Michigan, admissions officers created a new section of the university's application where high school students can say how much money their parents make and whether any of their grandparents went to college. Michigan started devising the questions last year when the Supreme Court was considering its affirmative action policies. The court ultimately upheld affirmative action but required the university to eliminate a point system that gave extra points to minorities.
With the new questions, Theodore L. Spencer, director of undergraduate admissions, said Michigan wanted to give proper credit to students who had compiled good academic records without the advantages that others had. "We certainly want to look at ways to create a better distribution of students," he said.
Michigan is still not dominated by wealth as some private colleges are. Almost half of its students are from families earning less than $100,000 a year, the student survey shows. But the changes are still unmistakable, say professors and others here.
"When most people think of a typical college student, they're thinking about eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and having massive debts," said Scott E. Mendy, a junior from Tigard, Ore., who receives financial aid. At Michigan, he said, "people live very well."
Summer jobs? Many undergraduates do not think twice about accepting an internship that barely covers their expenses. Many can afford to take spring break trips to Mexican resorts or Europe. Extracurricular activities often seem to be run by students who can devote dozens of hours to them each week without trying to hold down a campus job, said Angela Galardi, a senior who recently completed a term as president of the student government.
The forces behind the rising wealth on many campuses seem to be both economic and psychological, university officials say. As the income of college graduates has risen much faster than that of less educated workers, getting into the right college has become an obsession in many upper-income high schools.
With the help of summer programs, preparation classes for college entrance examinations and sometimes their own private admissions counselors, students in these schools assemble more impressive applications than they once did. They also apply to more top colleges.
The advantages of campuses with increasingly wealthy student bodies are obvious, educators say: the colleges have more resources for research and student activities, more professors doing cutting-edge work and more students who received solid high school educations.
But they also have much steeper tuition bills than in the past, and this seems to have turned off many middle- and low-income families. Some students are not willing to take on the tens of thousands of dollars of debt that is often necessary. Others, studies show, underestimate the available amount of financial aid.
"We were founded on the principle of allowing larger numbers of students to go to college in an affordable way," Mr. Spencer, Michigan's admission director, said. "But having said that, the price of college has gone up, and many of the truly needy will not bother to apply."
That concerns people here and on other campuses because of what it could mean for the variety of campus life and for the broader economy.
"We're very worried," said William Fitzsimmons, Harvard's director of undergraduate admissions. "There are some very, very talented kids in the bottom quartile who aren't even going to college. It's a huge waste of talent."