The $64,000 question: How to increase access without blowing the budget

More Colby students come from families in the top one percent of income than from the bottom 60 percent, according to a recent New York Times article. There are 38 colleges where this is also the case, but Colby stands out as having a particularly disproportionate ratio. Twenty-one percent of Colby students come from the top one percent while only 12 percent come from the bottom 60.

This is a fascinating statistic, but what does it mean? The article’s provocative framing and presentation of its subject makes outrage the natural response. The article holds up the 38 colleges in question as emblems of economic inequality, perpetuating and solidifying class divisions.

Given this interpretation, the answer for colleges is clear: admit more lower-income students and perhaps fewer higher income students; essentially, make economic diversity a priority. It may be only a Band-Aid solution to the larger social issues raised in the piece, but for the 38 colleges implicated, it would be a step in the right direction so as to distance themselves from an embarrassing statistic.

At least, that was my first thought after reading the article. But after thinking about the issue more and talking it over with others, I am wary to draw such a strong conclusion or such a strong prescription for what Colby should do next. There are a multitude of hidden factors at play, and the fact that we have such an unrepresentative income distribution, despite virtually everyone agreeing that increased access to education is desirable, suggests that the problem cannot be remedied so simply. There are tradeoffs that must be considered. There are subtleties in the data that the article does not provide.

To start off, it is worth noting that the proportions are not quite so skewed as they might seem. Families with college-aged children are already more likely to be wealthier than the population at large. Based on work experience alone, one would expect the household income of 50-year-olds to be higher than 25-year-olds. The bottom 60 percent, according to the New York Times article, are those with incomes below $65,000. The average income for people with children tends to be higher. To use one possible familial configuration, married couples with children have a median household income of $85,087. Based on this figure, it is unlikely that a college would have a fully representative sample of America’s income distribution. At the University of Maine, a college that has far more economic diversity than Colby, still only 44 percent of its students hail from the bottom 60 percent. For a college’s income distribution to be skewed is in some ways expected, even before taking profit or budget into account.

And yet, it is true that Colby’s economic disparity is another beast entirely. Again, only 12 percent of students come from the bottom 60 percent. I talked to many students who were uniformly shocked by the percentage and would have estimated the number to be 30 or 40 percent, not 12.

It must be said that fewer students, however, were surprised by the number of one-percenters at Colby. They cited people’s clothes as the main tip off—from Barbour jackets to Canada Goose parkas, many frequently seen brand names do not come cheap.

If we take Colby students’ current distribution of wealth as the status quo, it seems that there are three possible paths going forwards, each with their own tradeoffs.

First, Colby could go out of its way to promote economic diversity. Let us imagine that Colby accepted twice as many students from the bottom 60 percent as it does now, putting it on par with how many an institution such as Harvard would accept. Among Harvard students, 15 percent come from the top one percent and 20.4 percent from the bottom 60. This means that Colby currently has a higher proportion of one-percenters in its community than does Harvard. The problem is that Colby does not have the budget of Harvard. Instead of meeting all of a student’s demonstrated need, as the College does now, it would only be able to meet some of it, leaving the student saddled with debt. Alternatively, the College could continue providing generous financial aid but would have to funnel resources from other areas to do so—areas that help Colby maintain its status as a highly ranked college. These are admittedly speculations, but it is easy to imagine that putting more money into some areas might be detrimental to others through spending cuts. A dilemma thus presents itself in which more aggressive outreach might mean diminished returns for the students who attend the College.

A second possible path presents itself if we ignore the benefits of greater economic diversity. One can imagine a scenario wherein Colby devotes fewer resources to financial aid and doubles down on being a school for wealthy students. The College would have more money, but at what cost? Such a move would betray the school’s liberal values regarding equality of opportunity. However problematic the concept of a meritocracy may be, such a move would extinguish its very possibility. It would keep students insulated in a bubble of class privilege while other schools would be exposing their students to people from all walks of life. Given the lower economic standing of Maine relative to other states, Colby would likely admit fewer students from Maine, which, while not being wrong in principle, would send an awkward message to the community. From the conversations I have had, it seems that students value economic diversity and believe it has real benefits, though perhaps not quantifiable.

Finally, one can imagine a path that stays closer to the status quo, though with an eye towards making the college more accessible to lower income students. How to do this without exhausting our financial aid resources is a difficult proposition, and I do not know how it could be accomplished. Colby’s current ratio of high-income to low-income students is the result of a multifaceted budgeting process with more considerations than that to which I am privy.

The New York Times article shone a light on an important issue to which many of the other 38 colleges named have responded vigorously. The editorial staff of Bowdoin responded to its inclusion on the list by suggesting the college employ a more progressive financial aid policy, going beyond its current “need-blind” status. But based on the information given, I and many other students are uncomfortable making a similarly sweeping policy proposal. The statistic is interesting, but we need to know more. As Mirco Dinelli ’18 stated, “we should be careful about drawing additional conclusions from it.”

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