Super-selective universities are stoking anger at higher education

Elite universities must expand their intake to combat rising resentment directed at higher education, says Catharine B. Hill

September 26, 2017
The Claw

In a healthy, growing economy, one group should not be gaining at the expense of others. A rising tide is said to lift all boats, but does it?

Consider where things stand in the US today. The aggregate US GDP may have grown over the past 40 years, but increasing income inequality has resulted in a very large share of our society feeling that they have not benefited. American families in the middle of the income distribution are now much closer to those at the bottom than those at the top. Once one feels faced with a zero-sum situation, it is harder to celebrate and support the success of others.

This situation helps explain some of the stress that our society and, in particular, higher education is facing. It points to why we must not ignore income inequality’s interplay with major developments, including affirmative action lawsuits and recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia. The US Supreme Court ruled four to three last year in favour of the University of Texas at Austin’s use of race in the admissions process, which many felt settled the affirmative action debate at least for a while. But President Donald Trump’s Justice Department put affirmative action back on the table.

The difficult reality we face is that earning a bachelor’s degree depends importantly on family income and race, not just talent. Black, Hispanic and Native American higher education attainment rates in the US are significantly lower than Asian American and white rates. And the children of families in the top third of the income distribution are also significantly more likely to go on to college and graduate than those in the bottom third. We must remedy this so that all boats rise.

In our current economy, getting a bachelor’s degree results in increased expected lifetime earnings of about 75 per cent compared with the earnings of those who only graduate from high school. This differential has increased over the past 40 years, and is in fact part of the reason for the increased income inequality and accompanying resentment that we are experiencing.

But we also need to recognise that the affirmative action debate is about small numbers. It focuses on who gets seats at the most selective schools, which are also the schools with the best resources and highest graduation rates.

We have turned access to a great education, and all the benefits that it confers on those receiving it, into a zero-sum game at these schools with all of its accompanying resentment. Federal and state legislators should be offering more of their overall support to public and private non-profit education and allocating increased resources more equitably across higher education to improve enrolment and graduation rates for people from all races and incomes across the board. Without this, there will be continued competition for these scarce seats and the benefits they confer as well as continued debate about what constitutes equitable access, both at elite undergraduate institutions and at the nation’s finest law, medical and other graduate schools.

A better solution would be to make a great education less of a scarce resource, reducing the battles over seats at these schools. Increasing enrolment at these schools, as has happened at both Yale and Princeton, can help, along with commitments on the part of these schools to increase their socioeconomic diversity through such initiatives as the American Talent Initiative

Improving student outcomes across higher education, such as at Georgia State, which has increased its graduation rates significantly, helps to reduce the differential outcomes for students of attending one type of school rather than another.

The events in Charlottesville are also emblematic of this challenge. While the alt-right and its white supremacist members are a fringe group of racist, neo-Nazi ideologues, they have been emboldened by the success of the Trump administration in tapping into the resentment of middle-income white voters. Combine the re-emergence of identity politics on campuses with the discontent of many families struggling to afford a higher education that they understand is more important now than ever before, and the situation can become volatile. A college campus – often more racially and socioeconomically diverse than the rest of society – can be, paradoxically today, a crucible in which the resentful and the resented actually meet as peers and are challenged to – and learn to – listen to each other.

Greater investment in higher education has to be part of the solution, with the private sector stepping up as well as federal and state policymakers. Those at the top of the income distribution have benefited from access to higher education and its significant rewards in the labour market, and now it is their turn. They should contribute to increasing access for others.

There are a variety of effective ways to stimulate these contributions, most notably tax policy and incentives along with commitments from higher education institutions to reaffirm their support for equal opportunity. By increasing support for higher education more broadly, and distributing that support more equitably, we offer better options. We reduce the resentment.  


Access to higher education should not be seen as a zero-sum game for those in the bottom half or even bottom 90 per cent of the income distribution. Americans have one of the wealthiest societies in the history of the world, and higher education should be an opportunity available to all who are prepared to undertake it – regardless of income or race. 

Catharine B. Hill is managing director of Ithaka S+ R, a not-for-profit higher education consultancy, and is president emerita of Vassar College, a private liberal arts college in New York state.

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