Frank Bruni, writing in the New York Times (5.18.14) is the latest critic to lament the concentration of wealth at the nation’s most prestigious universities.
In 2011, the most recent year for which figures are available, roughly 75 percent of the students at the 200 most highly rated colleges came from families in the top quartile of income, he said. Only 5 percent came from families in the bottom quartile.
Of course this is the case. Wealthy parents begin the education of their children at childbirth and provide them with all the stimulation, intellectual challenge, artistic opportunity, and personal attention they need to enter college as prepared, confident, and ambitious students.
The Bruni article neglects to mention the high percentage of Asians attending elite universities. These Asians are most often not wealthy or anywhere near it; but come from a family culture which values education, discipline, hard work, respect, and honesty. Stuyvesant High School in New York City is a good example. Students from any background, ethnicity, or income can attend the school if they pass the long, difficult, and highly challenging exam. There is no tuition, for it is a public school. According to recent reports, Asian-American students account for almost 75 percent of enrollment at Stuyvesant (International Business Times 5.18.14)
These Asian students are children of service workers, government employees, and small business owners. Their families are far from being One Percenters; but they have been brought up for success:
The strikingly successful groups in America today share three traits that, together, propel success. The first is a superiority complex — a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality. The second appears to be the opposite — insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough. The third is impulse control.
Any individual, from any background, can have what we call this Triple Package of traits. But research shows that some groups are instilling them more frequently than others, and that they are enjoying greater success (Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, NYT 1.25.14)
It is this ethos of hard work, success, and discipline which links the children of wealthy white families and those of Asian families of much more modest incomes. It is no surprise that Asian students are represented in disproportionate numbers at elite institutions of higher learning, and they make up the bulk of students in the second, third, and fourth quartiles mentioned by Bruni, above.
Wealth is a red herring. It is not wealthy children attending elite institutions. It is prepared, trained, and disciplined students who have a well-defined moral code, some of whom happen to be wealthy.
This educational philosophy is not new. Cato the Elder developed an educational system for the future leaders of the Roman Empire. In his distichs he enunciated the essential principles of honor, courage, respect, decency, honesty, and morality – all of which were deemed to be as essential as management, oratory, or military strategy. In fact all great civilizations have been based on these fundamental principles.
‘Progressives’ argue that if Harvard were to hew to this selection criteria, the school would be filled with wealthy whites and Asians, an untenable consequence. Harvard should change its criteria and set quotas by income. Increase the current 5 percent bottom quartile representation to, say, 25 percent or higher.
Because wealth and certain cultural factors are clearly the most potent indicators of academic success, to achieve the 25 percent goal Harvard would have to set aside its currently high admissions standards. In other words, Harvard would have to adopt an income-based affirmative action program guaranteed to lower academic standards just like the discredited race-based programs finally being dismantled today.
There is no doubt that children of some poor, non-Asian families do exceptionally well in high school, are recruited heavily by the Ivy League, and are now squirreled away in their carrels at Widener Library. As Chua and Rubenfeld point out, success is not always a matter of wealth or ethnicity. A child of any family adhering to the prevailing white-Asian cultural norms can compete successfully anywhere. Unfortunately these students are few and far between.
The sine qua non of both educational and economic success in America – the very bedrock of the America - is, as it has always been, an ethos of hard work, enterprise, discipline, and finely-honed intellectual ability. The role of government is not to continue to entitle those who outside the mainstream, but to encourage them to rejoin it. Charter schools and voucher programs, for example, reward those low-income families with Asian values. These students have a good chance of showing their inherent worth.
The American public higher education system is in theory a good one, for it is tiered with four-year, two-year, and community colleges. A student of limited means and limited academic performance in the lower grades can still go on to higher learning at appropriate educational institutions Little money may be spent on tuition at a vocationally-oriented community college, but the financial rewards of a well-paying job after graduation are significant. For those students interested in an academic career and capable of pursuing it, the tiered system allows them to move up and on to two-year and four-year institutions.
The four-year public university system has sold low-income students a bill of goods. The take their money, much of it debt and backed by federal guarantees or sweetened by subsidies; and provide them a mediocre education. Graduation rates are abysmal, and students who have not been prepared for anything still have to repay their loans. Meanwhile the universities build state-of-the-art football stadiums and glitzy academic infrastructure.
Andrew Rossi, the producer and director of Ivory Tower, a film about income inequality at elite universities and the inspiration for Bruni’s Times piece says that we need to pump more public money back into higher education to keep tuition down and college affordable. He additionally advocates caps on tuition at public schools.
This is exactly what the public education system does not need. In fact tuitions at four-year colleges should be raised and interest rates on student loans should approach market rates. This would ensure that only the most motivated apply, attend, and most importantly complete their education. The taxpayers who subsidize the difference between public and private tuitions want their money’s worth as much as the students.
On the other hand, public finances should be increasingly diverted to lower-tier schools which are more appropriate for the low-income and less-prepared student. Curricula at these schools should be reconfigured to focus on employment and civics. The taxpayer not only wants productive graduates but ones who can vote intelligently and participate responsibly in civic life.
There is absolutely no need for elite private institutions to change their admissions policies, for they have a responsibility to maintain the high standards which have resulted in the graduation of a disproportionate number of public, private, and community leaders.
It is our responsibility as citizens to assure that equality of opportunity applies throughout American society beginning with education. It is not the duty of government to provide higher education to everyone; but to offer the opportunity to pursue it.
The only filter through which students should pass to attain access to elite institutions is one which screens for ability, talent, and character – regardless of how these attributes have been acquired.
The same filter should be set up at every institution of higher learning. No matter what the tier level or the educational purpose of the school, the students must be appropriately qualified intellectually and academically. At all tiers, the absolute and irreplaceable criteria of discipline, work ethic, and responsibility must be applied.
The best private universities in the country are not ‘elite’. They used to be when restrictive social criteria were more important than ability and talent. No Jews – or for that matter Italians, blacks, or anyone else – needed to apply to these WASP, old-money legacy redoubts. Now Harvard, Yale, and Princeton admit anyone who is qualified. All elite universities give out millions in financial aid every year to encourage low-income, qualified students. In 2013 sixty percent of students at Yale, Harvard, and Princeton received some form of financial aid. As above, the problem is not with money, intent, or will. There are simply not yet enough students who pass academic muster.
The issue is not money. It is ability.