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Ralph Whitehead Jr.

Colleges and the numbers game

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ralph Whitehead Jr.
February 4, 2008

THE US Senate Finance Committee has been pressing the nation's wealthiest colleges and universities: With your tax-exempt endowments growing at double-digit rates, why do you keep raising tuition? So far, the reaction by some schools has been to increase (modestly) their scholarship aid - and to cite evidence of how inclusive and democratic they are.

In doing so, they have put some numbers on the table - but not always with a full explanation of what the numbers mean. So, for three kinds of numbers that some of the schools have set forth, here's an effort to do so.

The tuition number. This is the total yearly cost for a student to go to one of these schools. To put this number into perspective, we can put it next to the most recent figure for the nation's median household income. The median income is the income at the midpoint of the distribution. Half of US households take in less than the median, half of them take in more.

The tuition number is about $45,000. The nation's median income is $48,200. So the price of a year's education at these schools is just $3,200 shy of the yearly income of the typical American household. And it is $3,900 higher than $41,100, the median income of households in Montana, the home state of Max Baucus, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

The number for the best-off beneficiaries. As schools have increased scholarships, they have also begun to extend them to students who don't fit the familiar profile of a scholarship student: talented and hard-working, but threadbare. At Yale University, students will get automatic scholarships even if their family incomes are as high as $200,000. This number identifies Yale's best-off beneficiaries. To put it into perspective: A family with an income of $200,000 ranks in the top 5 percent of the household income distribution. At Harvard, the number is $180,000. If you've liked your Bush tax cuts, you'll like these numbers, too.

The first-generation number. This is the share of a school's students who are first-generation. That is, they come from households where no adult holds a four-year degree. A school where a large percentage of the students are first-generation is more inclusive and more democratic than a school where a small percentage of the students are first-generation.

In a recent letter to The New York Times, the president of Princeton, Shirley Tilghman, cited the first-generation percentage of her college with pride: "This year more than 11 percent of the students in our entering class are the first members of their families to attend college." This makes it sound as if 11 percent must be a pretty high first-generation number.

Some perspective: The share of the nation's 18-year-olds who are from households where no adult holds a four-year degree is 60 percent. If Princeton looked like America, its first-generation number would be 60, not 11. Its number is about one-fifth of a representative number. Blacks make up 12 percent of America. If Princeton's enrollment represented one-fifth of black America, the black share of its students would be under 2 percent. If it did the same for women, the female share of its students would be under 10 percent.

A passage in "The Big Test," Nicholas Lemann's book on the SATs, helps to explain why these various numbers must be put into perspective: "Here is what American society looks like today. A thick line runs through the country, with people who have been to college on one side of it and people who haven't on the other. This line gets brighter all the time." As it does, upward economic mobility decreases and economic polarization increases.

In American higher education, the schools that form its academic and financial elite exert a lot of influence on the rest of the four-year schools. Thus, how the elite schools address the thick bright line influences how other schools address it. And others are also raising tuition, conferring scholarships on well-off students, and short-changing first-generation students.

Thus, a way for elite schools to respond to the Finance Committee, rather than just react to it, is to lead all of America's four-year schools in an effort to jumpstart upward mobility and narrow economic division by vastly increasing the number of people who get a chance to rise above the college versus noncollege line, before it gets even thicker and brighter.

Ralph Whitehead Jr., a guest columnist, is a professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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