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A Radical Proposal for How Elite Higher Education Can Change America

For the next decade, the top 100 colleges and universities should only admit students with family incomes under $100,000.

July 20, 2020
 
 

This is a time for proposals that shift paradigms and maybe even policy (“defund the police”), so let me advance a radical vision for higher education: from the year 2021 until the year 2030, the top 100 colleges and universities should only admit students with family incomes under $100,000. Furthermore, their population of Black and Latinx students should mirror the demographics of the nation.

Higher education will be massively disrupted this next academic year anyway -- might as well turn the full somersault and create a big win for American society in the process. And make no mistake about it, a move like this would rank up there with the Morrill Land-Grant Act and the GI Bill as among the most historic actions higher education has taken for the benefit of the nation.

And it’s based on sound reasoning. Here are some things all of us know about elite higher education in the United States:

  • It was built by and for white men (with certain obvious exceptions like Wellesley, Morehouse and Spelman). The student culture on elite campuses has obviously changed, but if you look at the black-and-white photographs on the wall of the alumni building or the Student Union, the ones that depict the "good and great academic leaders of yesteryear," you will undoubtedly notice that they have some things in common. And if you walk into a meeting of the president’s cabinet, or the college’s Board of Trustees, or the people who have achieved the rank of full professor, you’ll think that those photos have come to life and taken up seats in the conference room. In other words, the white male history is not so far in the past. Many of the people who run colleges today look an awful lot like the people who ran colleges a generation or two ago.
  • The overwhelming majority of students on elite campuses are upper-middle-class white and Asian American students. They grew up in a world where private schools, intensive test prep, expensive enrichment activities and parents who pushed them to excel at school were the norm. That’s what professors expect, and it guides how they teach. That’s what administrators expect, and it guides how they shape campus culture. That’s what campus town businesses expect, and it guides the merchandise they carry and the prices they charge. Many students who grow up outside the magic circle of privilege -- those who are working class, and especially those who are first-generation students of color -- find themselves deeply uncomfortable on these campuses. Diversity officers do a good job creating welcoming spaces for such students, but at the end of the day they amount to islands in a sea of upper-middle-class norms.
  • Because elite campuses admit mostly upper-middle-class students, have a mostly upper-middle-class culture, and advance their graduates further into the upper middle class (and, often enough, into the economic elite) they effectively reproduce the class structure in the United States. It is worth stating this plainly: rather than ameliorating income inequality, one of the great challenges of our time, elite campuses, for all their talk of social justice, make the problem worse.
  • When more marginalized students (Black and Latinx, working class and first generation) do actually make it to and through an elite institution, they are launched several rungs up the economic ladder. They tend to lift as they climb, bringing members of their ethnic, racial and/or geographic communities with them up the ladder of socioeconomic class.

If you’re still not convinced, read this piece by Anthony Carnevale, Peter Schmidt and Jeff Strohl.

Collectively, the above leads us to an obvious conclusion: for a certain period of time, let’s means-test admissions to elite universities. Let’s have entire campuses for a stretch of several years be fully made up of working-class students, first-generation students and students of color. Let’s have the culture of the campus, the way faculty teach, the courses that are offered, the items that campus town businesses sell, the budget allocations that senior administrators make, adapt to smart students who aren’t rich.

What’s the problem? Don’t believe that there are enough excellent students below the $100,000 income level? Come on, this is America. We believe that talent is everywhere. Here’s a chance to engage excellence that has too often been overlooked. What an opportunity! It will allow college recruiters to be more creative and go to neighborhoods and high schools they didn’t even know existed. And not only will they expand their geography of talent scouting, they will widen their vision for what counts as talent in the first place.

There have been a lot of minor moves in this direction over the past few years. Abolishing the requirement for standardized tests. Allowing students to submit videos with their applications. Making it a point to admit the formerly incarcerated -- or, even, the currently incarcerated -- to degree programs. Let’s stop being satisfied with tinkering at the margins and having a few here and a few there -- let’s overhaul the structure.

What would happen to the Yale-bound kids in Greenwich or Lake Forest? Well, they would go to one of the next 100 schools on the elite list and make those places better. The student who might have gotten into Duke would go to the University of Dayton instead, and both places would benefit. Illinois State would welcome a lot of students who would typically have attended the University of Illinois, and the university system in my home state would be better for it.

The formerly Duke-bound student who goes to the University of Dayton will probably wind up in the upper reaches of the professional class anyway. But she will be joined there by a far more diverse caste of people.

How would it be paid for? Tax dollars is one way. Here’s an additional way: an organized philanthropy program funded by billionaires. Many hyperwealthy people in the United States attended a top 100 college and have an appreciation for the role that elite education played in their lives. That’s why so many give to their own alma maters. I believe that deep down they know that something has gone horribly wrong with American capitalism. A massive undertaking of the sort I sketch above gives them a chance to transform the American class system through an institution -- elite education -- that they both trust and feel indebted to.

My guess is that this goes so well that the nation winds up with far more social mobility, a far more diverse professional class, far more excellent universities and a handful of very proud billionaires who would have done that rarest of things -- make capitalism fairer and more humane.

Final note: I imagine the radical ambition of this piece might surprise readers who have, over the years, come to see me as a pragmatist. Pragmatism is a deal-with-the-world-as-it-is strategy, a constant sizing of what is good to what is possible.

In a moment of disruption and revisioning, a moment when so many failures and shortcomings have been exposed, far-reaching ambition is pragmatism.

It also reveals a different side of me: the one that has been inspired by religious views. The other day I rode my bike past the St. Francis Catholic Worker House on the north side of Chicago, where I lived when I first graduated from college. It’s a model of an ideal egalitarian community, based on the way Jesus was with his followers. My favorite college in America is Berea, where being poor and smart and willing to work and learn is the admission standard, because it comes closest to embodying that vision. For me, this has always been the definition of what is good.

We are in a time when what is good might also be what is possible.

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