The 19th Century education advocate and diplomat Townsend Harris wrote: “Open the doors to all. Let the children of the rich and the children of the poor take their seats together and know distinction save that of industry, good character and intellect.”
Harris founded City College of New York, an institution called one of the great experiments of the American democracy and known for many years as the “Harvard of the Poor.” [Disclosure: I worked at City College for ten years.]
In light of the admissions scandals that have tarnished the reputations of several elite universities, Mr. Harris’ message warrants our attention anew. The scandals represent the antithesis of his beliefs.
Bribing coaches and admissions officers, doctoring with test scores and transcripts, and photoshopping students’ faces onto pictures of athletes show the desperate lengths some parents are willing to go to get their children into a top school. Their actions are symptomatic of a higher education system gone awry that unethical people can – and will – game.
As a parent and someone who worked in higher education, it is easy to understand the attraction of elite colleges and universities. They provide a great education. They have excellent faculty, state-of-the-art facilities and vast resources. They offer access to opportunities not available at other institutions as well as to a network of successful – and distinguished – alumni. Finally, they provide a pathway to careers with prestigious organizations in business, government and the non-profit sector.
The result is a self-perpetuating untitled American aristocracy that requires the pedigree of a degree from a top university to gain entry. But if access to those institutions is denied to who lack the means to attend while others can buy their way in, several problems arise.
The pool of persons who can access this economic stratosphere is restricted largely to those who come from privileged backgrounds. They become intellectually inbred since they share common backgrounds, values and beliefs.
Because they draw from this limited pool, the universities that enroll them are not necessarily training the best and brightest; only those with the means to attend. A brilliant, high-achieving student from an inner-city neighborhood or impoverished rural county may be denied access because he or she can’t afford to go.
When this occurs, elite institutions and employers deprive themselves of the multiple perspective a diverse, multicultural population affords. Consequently, they become less attune to the needs of the stakeholders they serve.
Further, as the elite – the one percent, if you will – become separated from the rest of the population and draw a disproportionate share of the nation’s wealth, resentment sets in among the lower and middle classes. Populists, fear-mongers and bigots are able to draw on this resentment to advance their positions and pose threats to democracy.
Meanwhile, non-elite institutions struggle. Government support for public colleges and universities, as a percentage of revenue, has been falling for decades. Who makes ups the difference? Students and their parents. Not only does tuition climb, but students have to borrow more to attend. To repay their loans, they have to use funds that they could have used otherwise to buy a home, start a family or attend graduate or professional school.
To stay afloat, some public universities recruit affluent students from out of state because they generate more revenue through higher tuition. For every out-of-state student who enrolls, a deserving, in-state student is denied entry.
Higher education leaders must heed Harris’ message if they truly want to support a democracy instead of an aristocracy. To compete in a global economy, we as a nation must ensure that out best and brightest receive the best education possible, regardless of their economic station. We cannot afford for those with limited means to have their futures sidetracked. It denies us, as a society, of their talents and it weakens our democracy.
Elite institutions must adopt a needs-blind admission policy if they haven’t already done so. They need to extend access to achieving students of limited means, not only from urban communities but also from rural communities with high poverty levels. They can work in concert with non-profit organizations like National College Access Network and College Track that identify and support such students.
Realistically, they will continue to admit students from families that can afford to pay the “rack rate ” because they need the income. Surely “highly selective” schools can find enough of these students.
State governments need to step up their level of support for public colleges and universities so they can be affordable and continue to serve “the children of the whole people.” These institutions should to be able to concentrate on serving the in-state populations, which are more likely to remain and contribute to states’ economies by starting careers, families and businesses where they were raised.
When elite institutions can reject nine out of ten students who apply we do not have a shortage of qualified students, we have a shortage of spaces in top-rated schools. America’s elite colleges and universities have great brands than enable them to draw applicants from around the world. Why do they restrict themselves to one campus in one region? Why not tap the market for online programs?
With far more high-achieving high school students than the top schools can enroll and a glut of PhD-holders seeking to join the professoriate, one would think there would be opportunities to extend their brands and open campuses in other regions. If the admissions scandal leads some institutions to rethink their missions by becoming more accessible, at least some good will have come from it.