Scandals of Higher Education

The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality

by Walter Benn Michaels
Metropolitan, 241 pp., $23.00


On the Tuesday before last Thanksgiving, The Harvard Crimson ran a protest article by a sophomore majoring in economics. His cause was the abolition of classes for the whole of Thanksgiving week. Since few students like to stick around past the weekend before the holiday, he wrote, Harvard ought to follow Yale in ending its “anti-family-friendly policy” of remaining officially in session through Wednesday. It did not occur to him that making a round-trip home shortly before leaving campus again for Christmas break might pose a financial hardship for some of his classmates.1

The facts bear him out. Ninety percent of Harvard students come from families earning more than the median national income of $55,000, and Harvard’s dean of admissions was quoted in the Crimson a few months earlier defining “middle-income” Harvard families as those earning between $110,000 and $200,000. For these students, and certainly for their many wealthier classmates, it should be no problem to fly home, or, better yet, to hop over to Cancun or Barbados.

It is hardly surprising that lots of rich kids go to America’s richest colleges. It has always been so. But today’s students are richer on average than their predecessors. Between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s, in a sample of eleven prestigious colleges, the percentage of students from families in the bottom quartile of national family income remained roughly steady—around 10 percent. During the same period the percentage of students from the top quartile rose sharply, from a little more than one third to fully half. If the upscale shops and restaurants near campus are any indication, the trend has continued if not accelerated. And if the sample is broadened to include the top 150 colleges, the percentage of students from the bottom quartile drops to 3 percent.2 In short, there are very few poor students at America’s top colleges, and a large and growing number of rich ones.

All this may seem at odds with the stated commitment of Ivy League and other elite colleges to the high-sounding principle of “need-blind” admissions. To be “need-blind” means to take no account of a candidate’s ability to pay in deciding the case for admission. And since this policy is usually accompanied by a pledge to provide sufficient scholarship funds to admitted applicants who cannot afford the full cost (around $45,000 in the Ivy League today), it is an expensive policy. It depends on a system of discount pricing by which students paying the published tuition and fees subsidize those who cannot pay, and it requires large institutional investments to sustain the scholarship fund.

These are worthy commitments—a residual form of redistributive liberalism in a society broadly hostile to liberalism. Yet as a matter of practice, “need-blind” is a slogan that does not mean much except in relation to the needs of the applicant pool. If most applicants come from places like Greenwich or Grosse Point, a college can be “need-blind” without having to dispense much aid.

What explains the scarcity of…

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