The Price of Fostering Social Mobility

Kate Blanchard

June 12, 2017
Alma College

David Leonhardt’s “The Assault on Colleges – and the American Dream,” exploring the lack of economic diversity at the nation’s top colleges, hit home particularly hard for me this week, arriving as it did on the heels of my 25th eunion at Kenyon College. I had a wonderful weekend, seeing old friends and making some new ones, eating crunchy local kale and drinking local IPA, singing traditional college songs, and enjoying (the end of) my short stay in a dormitory.

As someone employed by a small college, I was interested in more than just the bells and whistles and attended President Sean Decatur’s town hall meeting for alums. I was thrilled to hear him speak eloquently about the great gift that liberal arts education offers to our rapidly-changing and truth-deprived world, not only because it prepares students for careers but also because it prepares them to be better people, not easily duped by the latest rhetoric.

Because of this he declared -- with a frankness I greatly appreciate in an administrator -- why Kenyon needs to prioritize becoming more socioeconomically diverse in the coming years. This goal must be reached through greater accessibility, which would be made possible largely by (as I understood it) increasing the college’s endowment, which at about $209 million is surprisingly modest for its peer group.

In contrast with its stated goals, though, this College Access Index of America’s top colleges raises questions about Kenyon’s commitment to accessibility and socioeconomic diversity. It will cost a reported $65,840 in 2017-2018, according to its website, and “Making Kenyon accessible to students from all backgrounds is the foundation of our financial aid philosophy.” It goes on to say, however, that more than half of students attending Kenyon receive no need-based financial assistance to help cover that $65,840 (though a few also receive merit-based aid), making it among the reportedly least socioeconomically diverse colleges in the nation.

Besides making me feel a little sheepish about where I went to college, this number strikes me as ironic because it is almost exactly what I will earn in 2017-18 as a tenured college professor. In other words, 25 years out, I could not possibly afford to send my child to my own alma mater. Granted I am part of Generation X, which is famous for being downwardly mobile through no fault of Kenyon’s. But even I am far luckier than most, falling above the nation’s median income of less than $56,000, and having parents who would willingly pay for Kenyon again if my kid wanted it.

Such inaccessibility is not a foregone conclusion. Alma College, where I have been privileged to teach for more than a decade, is proof. Like many lesser-known liberal arts colleges, Alma demonstrates a much fairer distribution of socioeconomic backgrounds, with roughly 40 percent of students coming from households that are potentially Pell eligible, this with an endowment of “only” about $110 million. For my alma mater to claim that it can’t afford to offer more need-based aid might sound true enough when compared to Ivy League institutions with endowments in the billions, but it rings hollow when compared to many other small colleges on the College Access Index that have much less to work with than Kenyon’s $116.5k per student.

But here’s the rub: the relatively-accessible Alma College didn’t make the index at all. As it happens, socioeconomic diversity often comes with lower graduation rates that disqualify a college from a listing. Many of the nation’s college-bound youth are the first in their families to attend college at all, let alone a private one, and such students are notoriously difficult to retain. The way American college readiness maps onto race, ethnicity, and income means that colleges that achieve “diversity” through domestic recruiting in non-typical markets (rather than full-pay international students) will pay a double penalty: once in the loss of tuition dollars, and again in retention rates. Students undoubtedly benefit from learning in mixed company, but it often comes with a price in the prestige of their degrees.   

Yet for all the admitted challenges, accessibility and affordability remain a matter of institutional priority rather than ability. More colleges can afford to recruit lower-income students; they choose not to. The arms race is real, to be sure, but it can also serve as a ready excuse for elitism or the status quo. Kenyon’s reputation for excellence is long fought and hard won, so it’s no wonder if they are loath to sacrifice even a few points in ranking for the sake of social justice. No one wants to be the college to go first, even in the pursuit of long-term gains, if it means being punished in the short term. The higher education market, as it turns out, is still a market, and an unforgiving one at that.

But if we are true believers (and I use this term advisedly) in the distinct value of an intensive, residential, liberal arts education, accessibility should be our top priority. I wish everyone could attend a Kenyon or an Alma. This won’t happen without trustees and major donors who are willing to forego putting their names on sexy new buildings in favor of funding academe’s core functions of teaching, learning, and student well-being. And this won’t happen unless those of us working in higher education can persuasively articulate, in every moment of our working lives, why they should bother to do so.


Kate Blanchard is professor of religious studies at Alma College.


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