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Did you know that 37 percent of the Harvard Class of 2025 attended private schools or that the figure at Princeton was 40 percent, at Brown, 41 percent, and at Dartmouth, 44 percent?

Note: Those figures don’t include the 10 to 30 percent of Ivy Leaguers who are international students, many of whom also attended pricey private schools.

To put those figures in context, nationwide, just 10 percent of high school students attend private schools.

In 2021, The Atlantic calculated that “Dalton has sent about a third of its graduates to the Ivy League. Ditto the Spence School. Harvard-Westlake, in Los Angeles, sent 45 kids to Harvard alone. Noble and Greenough School, in Massachusetts, did even better: 50 kids went on to Harvard.”

The article’s author noted that “Among the top 25 feeders to Princeton, only three are public schools where 15 percent or more of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch,” and that a Lawrenceville School graduate was seven times more likely to go to Princeton than a student from New York City’s ultraselective Stuyvesant High School, where 45 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Over half of the low-income Black students at elite colleges attended top private schools.

The Wall Street Journal describes a major contributor to the prep-school bias: “‘aristocratic’ sports recruits feed pipeline between private schools and Ivy League”: “About two-thirds of athletes on Ivy League rosters [are] in so-called aristocratic sports such as crew and lacrosse” or squash or water polo.

Just in case you took the Labor Day weekend off, there were a lot of interesting news stories that you may have missed.

For example, an accreditor approved a bachelor’s degree program that requires as few as 90 credit hours. This decision raises a lot of questions that Robert Kelchen, among the most perceptive and thoughtful commentators on the higher education scene, comments on his website. Here are some of the questions he raises:

  • Will other accreditors be pressured to follow suit?
  • Will the Biden administration’s Education Department step in?
  • How will this affect transfer students or the cross-subsidies that departments depend on?
  • Will the effect be confined to adult-serving institutions?

As someone who graduated in three years, thanks to AP courses, and who spent my third year full-time on an independent research project, I should be the last to criticize a more compressed pathway to a degree. But I had a level of faculty mentoring and research funding that few students receive today.

Three-year degrees can save families thousands of dollars. But it’s hard for me not to see this as a giant leap toward a devalued degree. At one end, we’re witnessing the growth of dual-degree/early-college courses of uncertain quality taught by instructors without a terminal degree. Now it will be increasingly possible to graduate with fewer electives.

I view this as a logical, inevitable outgrowth of a cafeteria approach to a college curriculum. After all, if a degree consists of a random collection of courses without any logic or coherence, why shouldn’t some classes be jettisoned?

The New York Times featured two articles that speak to a number of hot-button issues that grow out of the increasing diversity of today’s student body and the shifts in students’ and parental expectations about colleges’ responsibilities, campus concerns about legal liability, evolving cultural norms and shifting power dynamics among students, administrators and faculty.

One piece, a classic example of late-summer clickbait, looks at how college dining halls are responding to a surge in students with food allergies and requests for special diets for religious, dietary or health reasons.

That piece focuses, predictably, on name-brand institutions, and the readers’ comments are fascinating if not surprising. Many readers are dismissive, decrying coddled, entitled students and citing this as a contributor to the high price of a college education. Others emphasize the dangers posed by food allergies and colleges’ legal and moral obligation to accommodate students’ diverse needs, especially at institutions where meal plans are mandatory and dorm kitchens are unavailable.

What the article doesn’t discuss is the trend at many schools—including my own—to rely increasingly heavily on various fast food outlets to feed students. This trend, in my view, combines the worst of all worlds: campus commercialization; high-fat meals low in nutrients and almost totally lacking in fruit, vegetables and fiber; and the elimination of the dining halls where diverse students socialized and interacted.

The second piece reports on a shift in Yale’s mental health policies that had previously required students struggling with suicidal thoughts or clinical depression to withdraw without a guarantee of readmission and with the loss of their campus health insurance. This shift makes a lot of sense to me.

Unfortunately, this piece doesn’t really grapple with profoundly thorny issues that campuses face involving confidentiality, due process, notification, reporting requirements and access to support services. For example, what are colleges’ responsibilities to roommates, residence advisers or faculty when a student is experiencing a severe mental health crisis? Can colleges compel a student to undergo treatment as a condition of enrollment? How can a campus determine if a student’s behavior puts others at risk?

Then, there was an article Inside Higher Ed published from Times Higher Education about how wealthier universities in Australia are thriving while other institutions falter. A similar piece could, of course, have been written about the United States, where we are also seeing a flight toward more prestigious, better resourced institutions with higher graduation rates, which is intensifying higher ed’s stratification.

One result: many regional comprehensives—the four-year institutions that serve the most diverse and disadvantaged student bodies—are experiencing declining enrollment even as many flagship campuses enroll their largest entering classes ever. The divide in resources, students’ academic qualifications, faculty salaries, breadth of programming and student access to academic support services, cutting-edge technologies and mentored research opportunities, internships and other high-impact practices is widening.

Another result: many community colleges rely, more and more heavily, on early-college/dual-degree courses as a source of revenue and enrollment. Currently, high schoolers make up a fifth of community college students.

Jeffrey Selingo reports that while over 85 percent of students at private nonprofit colleges receive financial aid (largely because of discounting), the figure at public institutions is about 69 percent, with nearly a third of students paying full freight, which means, of course, that many families are highly sensitive to any increase in tuition and fees.

At the institutions where I taught, administered or studied, here are the most recent figures for the average net cost of attendance per year, including grants and scholarships.

  • Houston $13,798
  • Hunter $2,124
  • Oberlin $34,498
  • Texas $17,519
  • Yale $16,341

A very striking range, wouldn’t you say? And the range depends heavily not only on institutional resources but on state and local-level public policy decisions.

Then, there was a fascinating piece by Joshua Kim on Boston University’s $24,000 online M.B.A. program. As a program alumna explained, “the program was created in response to what he called ‘artificial scarcity.’ There is no reason low-cost, high-quality online degree programs cannot be done by the world’s most elite schools at scale.” The interviewee goes on:

“The reason these types of programs aren’t more ubiquitous is due to fear—fear of brand dilution, fear of enrollment cannibalization or just higher ed’s recalcitrance to innovate and change—and in response I ask this: Who are we hurting most by this artificial scarcity? The working mom who cannot take two years out of the workforce to go back to school? The international student who for personal matters cannot relocate to the U.S.? The first-generation student who doesn’t want to take out more loans for graduate school?”

Bravo to BU for rising to the occasion.

May other institutions, including my own, take similar steps to broaden access to a meaningful credential and institute—or better yet, require—immersive, highly interactive pedagogies in online courses that incorporate team-based simulations and project-based learning and that act like a true learning community.

Let me conclude with one last article that you might have missed. In an essay entitled “Americans Are Losing Faith in the Value of College. Whose Fault Is That?” Paul Tough, the author, most recently, of The Inequality Machine: How College Divides Us, argues that “the new economics of higher ed make going to college a risky bet.”

As I read his article, I kept wanting to shout out: we mustn’t be overly nostalgic about the “good old days.” There wasn’t a magical past, say, in the 1950s or earlier, when college wasn’t socially and economically class related. We need to remember how uncommon college attendance was just six decades ago, when just 64 percent of young people graduated from high school and 45 percent of those enrolled in college and fewer than 8 percent of Americans had a college degree. Back then, even going to a state institution was often a stretch. It certainly was for my parents.

(As my “Higher Ed Gamma” partner, Michael Rutter, points out, higher ed attracts a lot of articles like Tough’s that resemble those you might read in Rolling Stone about the post-Napster collapse of the music business … and how in the “good old days” artists made money, concerts were cheaper, fans were better and the music was much, much better and non–Auto-Tuned. But don’t fool yourself. It doesn’t take much digging to discover that the music industry back then was often corrupt, sexist and exploitative of artists who had little recourse when their talent was abused.)

To be sure, our current system of paying for a college education is broken, and like so many things in this country, higher ed has suffered from utter underinvestment in infrastructure, political maneuvering and neoliberal corruption of college’s mission and purpose.

There’s an odd tendency in Tough’s essay and his recent book to imply that colleges set out to exacerbate inequality. In fact, the rise of inequality in this society has been going on for decades, and even as the stratification of higher education reflects that reality, colleges have also fought against that trend, even though this has been an impossible battle for them to win.

It’s certainly the case that the elites have not done nearly enough to advance economic equality—and should be held to account. But we mustn’t forget that the United States, more than almost any other country, has made college for all not just an ideal, but to a striking extent, a reality.

Societies including Britain, India and South Korea and many others do in fact have educational systems that truly are about class structure or tracking as early as the end of primary school or the outcome of a single high-stakes test. Yes, Canada has an admirable model, but it also has a tiny population, less than that of California.

American colleges and universities have never been what Tough calls “deliberate actors” able to shape their destiny without being buffeted by the economy or legislation or other variables. What our campuses can—and must—do is act more like a collective entity and do everything possible to press this society to truly make a high-quality college education available to all. That means that every student should have affordable access to a teacher-scholar, high-impact practices and strong systems of wraparound supports.

The college-for-all ideal has, without a doubt, made teaching tougher. Today’s students are much more willing to voice their concerns and assert their rights. They’re more demanding, and a few are willing to punish faculty on teaching evaluations when their requests aren’t fulfilled or their grades sufficiently high.

Administrators do, at times, undermine professorial authority and fail to defend academic freedom and require instructors to alter the fundamental nature and even the rigor of our classes (for example, by eliminating breakout sections in large lecture courses). Some accreditors are failing to resist legislative pressure to degrade the quality of a college education.

The challenges we face are the inevitable outgrowth of a change that we should all applaud: a shift in the ethos of higher ed away from an education of an elite to an education accessible to all, irrespective of their family background, financial resources and special needs. That’s higher education’s democratic ideal.

Fulfilling that democratic mission will not be easy. But if we don’t strive to realize that goal, we betray our campuses’ public responsibilities and purpose.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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