October 3, 2011

University, Inc.

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Getting a high SAT score, earning a 4.0 GPA and running the student government just don’t seem to cut it anymore for college admissions officers. It turns out that hopeful high school seniors should also have parents with deep bank accounts.

According to a new Inside Higher Ed survey of 462 college admissions officials across the country, students who rely less on financial aid are in higher demand. Even worse, a quarter of admissions officers have been pressured by administrators or trustees to admit certain students regardless of their academic and extracurricular merits.

With the price of college more than four times what it was 30 years ago, only the few lucky students from wealthy backgrounds able to pay their tuition out of their parents’ pockets will profit from these new admissions standards.   But these revelations shouldn’t be surprising. With dwindling endowments that are just now making a comeback in the wake of the Great Recession, universities everywhere must clamor to save all the money they can, even if it means accepting more students from affluent backgrounds, out-of-state, or other countries. Curiously enough, this survey was released only a few weeks after The Cornell Daily Sun reported that international students faring from China have more than doubled in the past four years — from 401 to 825 — at Cornell.Are we guilty of the using these subversive strategies to regain our financial foothold and stop our monetary hemorrhaging? I sure hope not. Or else dear old Ezra would be turning over in his grave. After all, he envisioned a university that would unconditionally accommodate “any student,” not “any student (whose parents have a fat wallet).”But the survey points to a larger disturbing trend: Higher education has deviated from its original intent as an alternative to the poverty cycle. More and more, it seems that college is only for the rich — the ones who can afford not only the steep price tag of a bachelor’s degree, but also the testing fees, advance placement tutors, SAT prep classes and application counselors that come with it.And the statistics are telling. In 2003 at the University of Michigan, more students came from families earning more than $200,000 than from families making less than the national median income of $53,000. And another report surveying 146 selective schools found that 74 percent of the students came from families in the top quarter income bracket while a paltry three percent came from the bottom quartile.Universities may send out glossy brochures featuring students of every skin tone, but they’re hiding a dirty fact: Campuses may be racially diverse, but they’re socioeconomically bland as ever.  These strategies to attract the wealthy have come at an especially inopportune time, when the rich have become ever richer and the poor has stayed economically stagnant. The wealthiest one percent now has a greater aggregate net worth than the bottom 90 percent, which puts the United States at a lowly 39th in the inequality rankings, just two places above Iran. The American income gap looks more and more like an income chasm. And it is one that’s swallowing our country’s ethos founded in meritocracy.But greater access to higher education would be one surefire solution to close the income gap and restore our faith in reward through hard work. After all, a bachelor’s degree is a proven way to climb the socioeconomic ladder — college graduates earn almost four times more than their counterparts who have obtained only high school diplomas, according to a recent report by the Census Bureau. Yet in a tragic irony, equal access to our country’s greatest social equalizer is only available to those who can afford it. In fact, it seems that education has been turned into a wedge driving income disparity rather than mitigating it. And even more troubling, it’s a sign that our society has turned its back on the very founding principles that have made it so great — that hard work will always be rewarded, and that social mobility is a certainty.  What sort of society will we, the rising youth generation, be entering if the wealthy are rewarded merely for their wealth and the poor continue to be punished again and again, without an exit strategy? The Arab Spring and the England riots should give us a hint.The leaders of our nation’s universities — the best in the world — have signed onto a sacred social contract to uphold the democratic ideals of higher education, but in a shameful turnaround, they have betrayed them by turning degrees into commodities. As a result, the American Dream, as it appears to those who hope to someday rise above poverty, looks more and more to be just that — a dream.

Steven Zhang is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at szhang2@cornellsun.com. The Bigger Picture appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Steven Zhang