From Cambridge’s brick halls to the neo-Gothic spires of New Haven, the Ivy League universities are a symbol of success, a name brand that conveys a sense of security and ability. Promises of their academic rigor and intellectual atmosphere attract top students, scholars, and researchers. But they’re also bastions of wealth, built and attended by the nation’s chosen sons. This seems at first to be the complaint raised by William Deresiewicz, a Yale professor whose article in the The New Republic this past July pleaded, “Don’t Send Your Kids to the Ivy League.” He argues that these schools create a homogenous ruling class and suppress creativity, social mobility, and socioeconomic diversity.
While I agree with many of the points Deresiewicz makes—students at demanding schools tend to be over-committed, and lack the freedom to be creative—I was baffled that one factor his argument balances upon is relatively unacknowledged. He assumes that students have a choice in where they attend college, and does not address the very real financial concerns most families have when sending a child to college. Elite schools may be guilty of certain crimes, but they are also home to some of the best financial aid programs in the country. Deresiewicz’s article in particular urges students to attend small liberal arts colleges or even religious schools, but this may not be the best option for lower-income students. Choosing a school like Stanford, with a full-need financial aid program and a name that will open the door to attractive job opportunities, may in fact be the most practical choice for students with limited resources. Thus, advising students to attend small, holistically-oriented schools seems like a positive step, but in fact applies mainly to students for whom the cost of college is not a concern—not the lower-income students about whom Deresiewicz claims to be so concerned.
The trouble with full-blown condemnation of elite colleges is that their prominence is almost directly correlated with endowments—and thus, better financial aid. In addition to meeting full financial need, many top schools have admissions policies that are need-blind, allowing them to accept students from a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. A list of the “best value” schools (essentially, colleges where students pay the lowest percentage of sticker price) reads almost exactly like the U.S. News & World Report’s famous college rankings list—every Ivy League school that Deresiewicz condemns appears in the top 20, along with schools like Stanford, MIT, and Duke. In fact, every school in the U.S. News & World Report’s top 20 “National Universities” and “National Liberal Arts Colleges” rankings covers full financial need, with the exception of University of California-Berkeley.
It’s worth noting that, even with these resources, top schools certainly have a hard time recruiting lower-income students. Many are not aware of these financial aid programs or opportunities to attend these schools, and it’s an area that administrations need to focus on. But the alternatives Deresiewicz suggests aren’t a solution, either. He mentions a number of liberal arts colleges he feels are better at providing students with a well-rounded education; of these (Reed, Kenyon, Wesleyan, Sewanee, and Mount Holyoke), only two claim to meet full financial aid. None of them have need-blind admissions policies. Reed College was need-blind until 2009, when it ended the policy due to financial constraints. During the admissions process that year, it was forced to drop more than 100 students from its “accepted” list and take students who could pay the full sticker price ($56,870) in their stead. This hardly seems an model for increasing socioeconomic diversity and mobility.
And state schools, which Deresiewicz also praises as alternatives to the top 20, do not fare much better. Only three public schools met 100 percent of demonstrated need in the 2013-2014 academic year: University of Virginia, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and the United States Merchant Marine Academy. The last of these has a service obligation after graduation.
Schools like University of Virginia and University of Vermont are both hugely popular among Northeastern students, but, like all state schools, they have different sticker prices for in-state and out-of-state students. This leads to many of the same issues of Ivy League inequality that Deresiewicz criticizes, as the student body at these public schools can become striated between the rich (out-of-staters) and the middle- or lower-middle class (in-state students). University of Vermont’s out-of-state tuition is $46,867 a year, comparable to many elite colleges. Where it does not compare is its financial aid program—average institutional assistance is just $11,253, and 56 percent of students take out loans.
But it’s not just the financial unburdening of those four years of college that might make elite colleges a good choice for lower-income students. They also have to consider how their degree will impact their next few decades of employment. Lower-income students may regard their education and future employment as an opportunity to support their families—more so than upper-middle- or upper-class students whose parents are financially secure. A 2013-2014 PayScale report that looked at mid-career salaries by institution found a major gap between elite schools and the type of school Deresiewicz praises. While Harvard students had a median salary of $118,200, the figure for Mount Holyoke graduates was $70,300. There were a few exceptions to this trend—for example, the median mid-career salary for Kenyon graduates was $102,900—but overall, alumni from top 20 schools can potentially make hundreds of thousands of dollars more than their peers over a lifetime.
Long-term career earnings are a factor in the college decision process, and cannot be totally ignored in favor of a moral message of scholarly ideals. Telling a student to pick a college based on a certain abstract merit may translate not just to greater debt and student loans during their time at school, but may also limit their ability to pay back those loans and assist their families later on.
Issues of racial diversity can come into play here as well: because of less-attractive financial aid, the low- and middle-class population at UVM tends to be made up of in-state students. Given that the state of Vermont is 95.2 percent white, this means that the student body will be correspondingly homogenous—and in fact, 83.6 percent of full-time undergraduates are white. For an out-of-state minority student, it seems an easy choice between an overwhelmingly white college with poor financial aid, or a school like Columbia, where 48 percent of students are from minority backgrounds, and all students have their full financial needs met. Thus, the state school model that Deresiewicz extols hardly seems a useful vehicle for socioeconomic—much less racial—mobility and diversity.
I had a chance to ask Deresiewicz about this oversight at a talk he gave here at Princeton on September 25th. I asked if it was the responsibility of a student to shoulder the financial burden that comes with choosing one of the schools Deresiewicz recommends. I didn’t receive a satisfactory answer—he threw out an anecdote about a student who “just turned down Williams” because he wasn’t receiving enough financial aid before saying that it was “a tough choice”—a theme to what were often condescending and disappointingly uninformative responses to student questions.
In a passage from his book Excellent Sheep, which The New Republic article is excerpted from, Deresiewicz notes that he is often challenged on the financial aspect of his argument at campus events. Of the concerned students, he says, “the question almost always comes from someone who appears as if he’d never had to worry about money in his life.” This strikes me as a snide, dismissive, and even contradictory response. Students who do have financial concerns may be embarrassed to voice these personal details in front of their peers, in a public forum that is often recorded and reported on. More importantly, students from all backgrounds are allowed to have concerns about money and class—and indeed, from his article, it seems as though Deresiewicz would welcome this class-consciousness. Why discourage this curiosity and line of questioning on the basis of assumed financial security? He urges students to go to school with people of different socioeconomic backgrounds, but dismisses the question of financial concerns as irrelevant if the interested party appears to be wealthy.
In dismissing these very real questions, Deresiewicz reveals his own blindness towards the lower-income student’s college experience, and the tough realities faced by most families looking to send their children to college. This is not to say that lower-income families select colleges solely on the basis of money—but it’s disappointing that Deresiewicz fails to consider this as a major factor.
While Deresiewicz’s call to improve socioeconomic diversity at top schools is a much-needed one, his suggestions—that students attend state or religious or liberal arts colleges, or take time off—don’t really address the issue. Urging students to make a choice that could have drastic financial consequences—and even, the assumption that they have the autonomy to make that choice—shows Deresiewicz’s lack of understanding about the realities faced by lower-income students in America. Choosing a school based on its holistic attributes is what comes second, when selecting a college—the first is, Is this affordable for our family? His endorsement of holistic curriculums and following one’s academic passions are much-needed arguments, but he must acknowledge that they are sometimes secondary to financial concerns. They can represent a trade-off that can cost students (and their families) tens of thousands of dollars in school fees and even more in future earnings. Certainly, elite colleges have a multitude of issues they need to amend. But for some students, they’re the best choice for a financially secure future.