David Brooks says:
The Education Gap, By David Brooks, NY Times: Especially in these days after Katrina, everybody laments poverty and inequality. But what are you doing about it? For example, let's say you work at a university or a college. You are a cog in the one of the great inequality producing machines this country has known. What are you doing to change that?
Let me defend universities against the implied notion that colleges aren't doing anything to address these problems. I apologize that this post is a bit "me" oriented, but Brooks struck a nerve. First, there are whole offices devoted to this problem, e.g. see here, but that by no means exhausts the available resources. On another front, I am currently Chair of the University's Scholastic Review Committee and an elected member of The Undergraduate Council. Both committees are concerned with these issues, but let me back up to the many years I chaired the University's Scholarship Committee, the committee responsible for allocating the entire pool of University scholarship money. As Chair, I had the committee reexamine each step in our process to try and identify hidden bias in the award of scholarship money. As an example, one part of our evaluation process used the number of AP courses a student completed as a measure of academic quality. However, there is a wide disparity in the number of AP courses across high schools and it varies with both the size of the high school and its demographic characteristics. To overcome this, we changed the standard to something along the lines of "The student takes full advantage of available educational opportunities" and distributed a list identifying the number of AP courses available at each high school. Some schools offered no AP courses at all and those students were no longer penalized for not having AP courses on their transcripts. In Oregon, there are a few large cities with large, high average income high schools and lot of smaller and less affluent schools spread out across the state. Subsequent data indicated that this change was successful in, as we saw it, more fairly distributing scholarship money according to merit across high schools with such varied demographics. This is not all we did, at the evaluation orientation each year we discussed these issues with regard to the evaluation process, e.g. when looking at a student's extra-curricular activities to be sure and account for circumstance and we would cite examples of how that might work, and the committee has members to specifically represent the interests of the students Brooks is writing about. The extra-curricular expectations for a single mom or an older sibling with imposed child care responsibilities are different from those of a student without such time or resource constraints. In any case, from my experience on this and other committees, I resent the implication that we do not care, are not sensitive to, or are not taking action to address these problems. We are.
Brooks goes on:
As you doubtless know, as the information age matures, a new sort of stratification is setting in, between those with higher education and those without. College graduates earn nearly twice as much as high school graduates, and people with professional degrees earn nearly twice as much as those with college degrees. But worse, this economic stratification is translating into social stratification. ... The most damning indictment of our university system is that these poorer kids are graduating from high school in greater numbers. It's when they get to college that they begin failing and dropping out...
Why is this an indictment of the university system and not our under funded primary and secondary education systems? I have no idea when assigning grades to the 50-300 people in a course what a student's economic circumstances are. I can only assign the grade the multiple choice or essay test supports and if a student fails, I can't pass them on some other basis. They need to come to college prepared and that starts long before they get to universities. Having done the University's grade inflation study and having examined high school grades as part of that process, I have my own ideas about why high school graduation rates might be rising. Take a look at the pressures and incentives current education policy gives primary and secondary schools for a start, and I've already mentioned funding issues. In any case, that we get more under privileged students coming through our doors but many fail along the way is something we do our best to address, but students need to arrive prepared and that is a social problem that extends far beyond the reach of our universities. Finally,
...I'm going to come back to this subject and write about what some colleges are doing to help these students and how most colleges are neglecting them. But let me conclude with the thought that while we have big political debates in this country about equality of results, all those on the left and right say they believe in equality of opportunity. This is where America is failing most.
I'll agree with that, equality of opportunity is essential, but I'm guessing we will disagree about the source of and solution to this problem.
UPDATE: Arnold Kling comments on this post and writes:
In my view, the issue is larger than universities' policies concerning admissions and financial aid. It concerns how universities are financed, and how this affects the distribution of income. First, consider state subsidies for universities. These are almost certainly regressive. Much of the subsidy goes to raise the rents earned by administrators and professors. Much of the rest goes to affluent students. The taxes that pay for the subsidies come from all economic classes. Second, consider university endowments. Again, they serve to increase rents of employees and to subsidize those students who attend the most elite institutions--a student population that is disproportionately affluent. Imagine instead what might happen if state funds and alumni donations funded vouchers for student tuition. Compared with reforming university finances, tinkering with admissions and scholarship policies is beside the point. It may "show that you care," but has little practical significance.
A couple of quick notes. First, I was answering the question Brooks posed, what have I done personally. If I controlled state taxes and expenditures, my approach would be different! Second, I disagree it is of little practical significance. That's not what our numbers told us, that's not what the people on the committee that work with students tell us, and if you are one of the students who gets a scholarship, it is of huge significance. Sure, we need to work on the issues Arnold identifies, but is he implying we shouldn't do this too?
One final note, we are a state institution, but our "subsidy" is 13 cents per dollar, down from around 30 cents fifteen years ago. The impact of this is that we have increased tuition to make up the difference at a rate far greater than the rate of inflation and this has reduced access. A lot of our work internally has been to counter the trends in enrollment the changes in state funding have caused and scholarships are one part of that strategy. The changes have not been insignificant. Some figures:
1990: Tuition was 23% of budget, state funded 32% of budget
2004: Tuition was 33% of budget, state funded 13% of budget
That's a big change in funding over the last 15 years and this is common across universities. The disinvestment you hear about is real and it has harmed educational access.