Class, cost and college
The word “crisis” pops up frequently in “Ivory Tower,” a compelling new documentary about the state of higher education in America.
It pops up in regard to the mountains of student debt. It pops up in regard to the steep drop in government funding for public universities, which have been forced to charge higher and higher tuition in response. That price increase is also a “crisis” in the estimation of one of many alarmed educators and experts on camera.
And “crisis” isn’t even their direst appellation. Andrew Delbanco, a Columbia University professor of American studies who functions as the movie’s conscience, notes an “apocalyptic dimension” to today’s discussion of college’s failings. The movie is set on verdant campuses. It’s rife with lecterns, books and graduation gowns. And yet it’s a kind of horror story.
Scheduled for theatrical release next month, “Ivory Tower” does an astonishingly thorough tour of the university landscape in a brisk 90 minutes, touching on the major changes and challenges, each of which could sustain its own documentary.
But as I watched it, one theme in particular kept capturing my attention. One set of questions kept coming to mind. How does our current system of higher education square with our concerns about social mobility? What place do the nation’s universities have in our intensifying debate about income inequality? What promise do they hold for lessening it?
The answers in “Ivory Tower” and beyond it aren’t reassuring. Indeed, the greatest crisis may be that although college supposedly represents one of the surest ladders to, and up through, the middle class, it’s not functioning that way, at least not very well.
I followed up with a few of the people in the movie, including Delbanco, who is the author of a 2012 book titled “College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be.” I asked him how well colleges were abetting social mobility.
“They are falling down,” he said, adding that in the days of the GI Bill, they did a much better job of it.
Anthony Carnevale, another contributor to “Ivory Tower,” gave me a similar assessment.
“The good news is that more and more kids are going to college,” said Carnevale, the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “The bad news is that higher education is becoming more and more stratified.”
In 2011, the most recent year for which figures are available, roughly 75 percent of the students at the 200 most highly rated colleges came from families in the top quartile of income, he said. Only 5 percent came from families in the bottom quartile, and while that’s up from 3 percent in 1994, it’s no huge advance or cause to rejoice.
Carnevale told me that since 1994, 80 percent of the white young men and women in this country who have headed off to college have gone to schools ranked in the top 500 by Barron’s. But 75 percent of the black and Latino young men and women who have entered college over the same period have gone to two-year or open-admissions schools outside the top 500.
“We’re sorting students by class,” he said. The most prestigious colleges are crowded with the richest kids.
There are poor kids around, too. “Ivory Tower” showcases one, David Boone, a young black man from Cleveland who is attending Harvard with the kind of robust financial aid that it and similarly well-endowed universities — Columbia, Stanford, Yale — can use to diversify their student bodies.
But those student bodies aren’t all that diverse. Harvard’s main student newspaper did a survey of the freshman class this academic year and found that 29 percent of respondents reported family incomes of at least $250,000, while only 20 percent reported family incomes of less than $65,000.
It’s wealthier kids who more easily stud their résumés with the extracurricular baubles that catch an admissions officer’s eye. It’s wealthier kids who are more likely to get extensive test preparation. Delbanco noted that superior SAT results correlate closely with high family incomes, so when colleges decide to care and crow about the altitude of their student body’s median SAT score, they’re privileging economically advantaged young people over disadvantaged ones.
And more than half of the poor kids who score in the top 10 percent on the SAT or the ACT don’t apply to the most selective colleges, said David Coleman, the president of the College Board, which administers the SAT. He and the College Board have joined a growing push to make sure those students have the necessary information and encouragement to do so.
“We as a country must do everything we can to make sure these hard-working, high-achieving students claim their futures,” he said.
Harvard and its ilk are just a small part of the story, though. Many more young people turn to public universities, where tuitions have gone up much faster than Americans’ incomes have.
Those schools have simultaneously become more invested in admitting students from affluent families. In a 2011 survey of college admissions officers, more than half of those at public research universities said that they had recently ratcheted up their efforts to recruit students who could pay full freight.
A story by Paul Tough in The New York Times Magazine this Sunday illuminates another troubling way in which college favors the rich.
“Whether a student graduates or not seems to depend today almost entirely on just one factor — how much money his or her parents make,” Tough writes, adding, “About a quarter of college freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution will manage to collect a bachelor’s degree by age 24, while almost 90 percent of freshmen born into families in the top income quartile will go on to finish their degree.”
We need to address that disparity. Andrew Rossi, the producer and director of “Ivory Tower,” says we also need to pump more public money back into higher education to keep tuition down and college affordable. He additionally advocates caps on tuition at public schools.
Watching “Ivory Tower,” which visits Harvard and Columbia and Wesleyan, I was reminded anew of the greatness of America’s universities, which remain the envy of the world.
But as the movie looked at the climbing walls and other gleaming perks that today’s hypercompetitive schools make sure to have, and as it mentioned the stratospheric salaries of university presidents who keep the donations rolling in, I was also reminded of a luxury product. The top colleges, shinier than ever, are Porsches. They can take you far and fast, but it’s a lucky few who get behind the wheel.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.