OPINION: Why Americans should not blame their local college or university for the shortfalls of the elite

In just the past eight years, American confidence in higher education has dropped from 57 percent to 36 percent, with more saying they have “very little” confidence than a “great deal.”

There are many reasons for this souring on colleges and universities, from high tuition sticker prices and large amounts of student loan debt to political polarization and doubts about graduates’ work readiness.

But one of the biggest contributors to declining public confidence in American colleges may be the disproportionate amount of attention paid to elite, top-ranked universities.

Americans are rankled by certain aspects of how elite institutions have behaved and what they represent. But, please America, don’t blame your local college or university because of them.

The “Varsity Blues” admissions scandal in 2019 perhaps epitomizes what bothers Americans about elite higher education. The scandal revealed a widespread scheme in which wealthy parents gained admission to elite colleges for their otherwise unqualifying children through “side door” bribery of college employees.

Related: ‘I did all of it,’ acknowledges mastermind of breathtaking college admissions scandal

The lengths the wealthy were willing to go for their children felt particularly egregious given the already enormous imbalance of rich students gaining admission to top-ranked colleges.

For example, a baby born to a family in the top 0.1 percent of income in the U.S. has about a 40 percent chance of going to an Ivy League or other elite college.

At the same time, a baby born to a family in the bottom quintile of income has a less than one-half of one percent chance of admission. In other words, someone born in the top 0.1 percent is roughly 100 times more likely to land in an elite college than someone born in the bottom quintile.

Among “Ivy Plus” colleges (Ivy League plus University of Chicago, MIT, Stanford and Duke), more students come from the top one percent of income distribution than the bottom 50 percent.

The fact that wealthy students dominate enrollments at elite colleges is an insult to one of America’s most deeply held values: meritocracy.

Institutions believed to be the best educational organizations in the world. with highly selective admissions and academic standards, are failing to enroll the best and brightest students from poor and middle-class families.

Related: The college growing gap between Black and white Americans was always bad. It’s getting worse

Now, on the heels of the Supreme Court striking down affirmative action earlier this year (which prevents colleges from using the consideration of race in admissions) there is a lawsuit against Harvard aimed to prohibit legacy admissions — a policy that gives preference to children of often wealthy alumni.

This is a prime example of an unsavory practice among elite colleges that is becoming more visible in the public arena — and is certainly disagreeable to the vast majority of Americans. (Fully 75 percent are in favor of ending legacy admissions.)  

Instead of being thought of as the superheroes of higher education, elite colleges are — sadly — now seen by the public as villains.

Also, while nearly 8 in 10 Americans say they would find it difficult to pay for a college education, those same elite colleges and universities are racking up billions in endowments.

The collective endowments of the Ivy League total roughly $200 billion and are projected to reach a trillion in value by 2048.

Yet the percentage of students enrolled in the Ivy League who receive Pell Grants (federal funding provided to low-income students for college tuition) sits at a mere 18.5 percent, while the percentage of students nationally who get Pell Grants is 40 percent.

Despite its enormous wealth, the Ivy League is less than half as likely as schools nationally to enroll low income, Pell Grant recipients. And with the Ivy League schools’ estimated annual costs approaching $90,000 per student per year, they seem downright unapproachable to most Americans.

Related: Podcast: Affirmative Action . . . for the Rich

There is much to be proud of with respect to our nation’s elite colleges. Elite colleges are most certainly educating some of the best and brightest our country has to offer. And they conduct research and support discoveries that improve the health and well-being of Americans, the efficacy of our military and the overall global competitiveness of America.

However, negative stories about them are dominating the news. Instead of being thought of as the superheroes of higher education, elite colleges are — sadly — now seen by the public as villains.

They would be wise to heed the superhero advice that “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Responsibility, in the form of upholding the democratic ideal of meritocracy and providing equity for students from lower income families, is how elite colleges can help all higher education regain the public trust.

In the meantime, Americans should ask themselves how they feel about the colleges and universities in their own regions. America has the most diverse higher education system in the world, and we ought to pay more attention to the important ways in which it serves many types of students and their myriad education and career goals.

Public universities, community colleges, Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), federal work colleges and affordable private colleges are just some of the many wonderful options that exist across our higher education landscape: Let’s focus on them.

Such a reframe and refocus will help us all see the incredible asset that American higher education is for our citizens, our country and the world.

Brandon Busteed is the chief partnership officer and global head of Learn-Work Innovation at Kaplan and an internationally known speaker and author on education and workforce development.

This story about elite colleges and meritocracy was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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