A Misguided Plan to Promote Equity

Schuler Foundation's effort to bring low-income and minority students to small liberal-arts colleges reflects misconceptions of "white-led foundations who really don’t get it."

September 29, 2021

The Schuler Foundation, in its recent initiative to give away hundreds of millions of dollars to small liberal arts colleges to increase “equity,” is acting true to form for white-led foundations who really don’t get it.

First, this effort is based in the notion that for poor people and people of color to succeed, they should leave their communities and places of diversity in favor of white communities. For many folks, the opposite is true. I know a Pell eligible Black freshman at an Ivy League college who regrets not applying to Howard. She is getting a full ride, but thinks that an HBCU would be more fulfilling. I cannot imagine her at a place like Union. I know a biracial kid from our city who went to Union and was miserable.

Second, many of these colleges have higher endowments than most and a majority of students who pay full freight. Kenyon and Tufts were among the 10 worst in the nation in Raj Chetty’s 2019 study of colleges with more students from the top 1 percent of income than from the bottom 60 percent. In other words, the lack of Pell eligible students at these colleges represents a choice – both historical and present. Also of interest is that these colleges have a vastly higher proportion than normal of students who attended private secondary schools. That is a tip off that the culture is not primed to deal well with Pell eligible students.

Third, we’ve seen this movie before with the Posse Foundation. Their model rests on the desperation that low income students feel about the cost of college. At our high school, Centre College in Kentucky, which is tiny and overwhelmingly white, is sold by Posse as an “opportunity” for our kids. Yikes. The reality is that any kid accepted at Posse would likely get admitted to a more diverse and prestigious college that would give them the same amount of aid – or more.   

Finally, though most of the schools that Schuler is funding are currently selective, there is a whiff of desperation about the future since they are located in states with declining population (Tufts is the exception). And preferences are changing! I was struck by the 2021 college matriculation of my city’s high school.  The Kenyons, Bates’, Carletons and Unions of the world no longer hold any attraction for this sophisticated and diverse group of kids – I know of only one student going to those four colleges.  This year the number of students attending BU, Northeastern and NYU doubled (42 total matriculations).   Cities are places of opportunity, and students of all kinds are voting with their feet.

If the Schuler Foundation had any sense of equity whatsoever, it would give to community colleges and urban public universities.

--Bliss Austin Spooner

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