Stanford Univeristy is rolling out a new policy whereby students with family incomes of less than $45,000 will pay no tuition. Announcements like this have become a mini-trend in recent years, as some high-profile institutions have reacted to critics who note that students at the nation’s most selective colleges and universities are 25 times more likely to be from the top income quartile than from the bottom. For all that higher education claims to value diversity, the lack of economic diversity among elite insitutions is startling.
Equally disturbing is the lack of good information that would allow policymakers and the general public to understand these problems and do more to fix them. There’s simply not a lot of good institution-level data out there detailing the economic profile of college students. That’s why the new www.economicdiversity.org Web site is most welcome: users can log on and compare institutions on a range of financial aid and income-related measures.
For example, according to the site only 9 percent of students at the University of Virginia receive Pell grants. 58 percent of dependent students at UVA don’t even apply for federal financial aid, and of those who do, two-thirds come from households with a family income of greater than $60,000 per year. Only 14 percent of dependent UVA students applied for federal aid from a household making less than $60,000, even though 50 percent all households in Virginia make less than $54,000 per year.
But we still have no sense of the overall income profile at UVA, since that data is only available for students who apply for financial aid. This lack of economic information is pretty typical–federal graduation rate statistics, for example, are calculated based on major sports category, but not income category. Thus, we can calculate the percentage of American Indian / Alaskan Native cross country runners who graduate in six years from a given institution, but not the percentage of students from low-income households.
It’s clear from the data, however, that the status hierarchy within higher education and the economic pyramid in society at large are closely aligned. Students with lots of money go to highly-selective universities with lots of money; low-income students go to open-access institutions that are often in similar financial straits. There are exceptions, and policies like Stanford’s will move the bar, a little. But overall higher education tends to mirror society’s inequalities as much as it works to overcome them.