This Is Higher Education’s Gilded Age
Natalya Balnova for The Chronicle Review
Michael Bloomberg announced in November that he was making a gift of $1.8 billion to his alma mater, the Johns Hopkins University. For the fiscal year ending in August 2017, Stanford University raised $1.13 billion, after raising $1.63 billion two years earlier. Within the past few years, Harvard University has received gifts of $400 million, $350 million, and $200 million. Applications are up, and acceptance rates down, at the nation’s most selective colleges and universities, as the number of students applying for early admission there continues to climb.
On the other hand, Hampshire College recently announced that, faced with “bruising financial and demographic realities,” it might not enroll a first-year class this fall. Beloit College announced that it was planning layoffs and budget cuts in response to a $7-million deficit. Earlham College is suspending its football program. Those are all private colleges that have distinguished histories and good reputations. In the public sector, the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, founded in 1894 but struggling to survive, is eliminating majors in six subjects, including history, French, and German.
Those examples are not exceptional. According to a recent survey of admissions leaders, a majority of colleges and universities do not expect to fill their new classes by June 1. Meanwhile, Columbia University had an acceptance rate of 7 percent in 2018.
In The Chronicle Review, Steven Brint suggests that, despite tales of gloom and doom, we are, in fact, living in higher education’s “golden age.” I would revise that assertion. What we are experiencing is not a “golden age” but a “gilded age,” one marked by an increasing concentration of wealth and prestige among a small group of elite institutions and a growing disparity between those colleges and the rest of American higher education.
Telling students at Hampshire or Stevens Point that we are living in a golden age is a bit like telling teachers in Los Angeles that life is good because Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, recently bought a $250-million yacht. Great news — it has two helipads.
There is, I think, both a metaphorical and a causal connection between the growing concentration of wealth held by the 1 percent (or maybe the 0.1 percent) in higher education and the disparities in our society. Just as a healthy middle class has been shrinking in the United States for decades, so too has what we might call the “middle class” of higher education. A few institutions — the Ivy League, the most prestigious liberal-arts colleges, a few public flagships — have long been wealthier and more selective than their peers. But not long ago, places like Beloit, Earlham, and Stevens Point were solvent and serving an important purpose by educating — usually very well — those students who were not candidates for MIT or Amherst. The student populations on the less-storied campuses, not to mention the millions who attended community colleges, historically black colleges, and small, rural institutions, were generally less affluent and more diverse than those at Princeton. Providing them with a college degree was, and is, arguably a more important social good than the work done by the ultraprestigious colleges, most of whose students have a range of excellent options from which to choose.
As many colleges struggle under the burden of declines in public funding, income stagnation, and demographic shifts (and absent the largess of billionaire donors), the inequality of opportunity in our country will only get worse. It is admirable that elite institutions now admit more students of color and more first-generation students than they did a decade ago. But these numbers will always represent a minuscule percentage of their enrollment, and we should not deceive ourselves into thinking that the problem of unequal access will or can be solved by Harvard. In fact, the belief that our sector is advanced just because Johns Hopkins, one of the wealthiest institutions in the country, will now be much wealthier is misguided and dangerous. That reasoning leads to bad individual and collective decisions.
It is not hard to find a causal link between the growing concentration of wealth within society and within higher education. With only the occasional exception, billionaire philanthropists are giving to billionaire colleges and universities. Those are the colleges they attended; those are the programs and campuses to which they want to attach their names. Of the slightly more than 100 gifts of over $100 million made to American colleges and universities since 1967, more than 80 percent have gone to institutions with endowments over $1 billion. Just seven colleges, with endowments totaling nearly $100 billion, account for 35 of those gifts. Ivy League universities and their peers continue to dominate higher-education news, creating the misleading impression among everyone, from policy makers to high-school students, that higher education is awash in money and more selective than ever.
Some will argue that struggling colleges have only themselves to blame for not coming up with a more sustainable economic model. Others will argue that what we are witnessing is simply an inevitable disruption of an outdated industry. Both of those arguments have some merit, though the fact remains that right now we have no obvious and equally effective replacements for good colleges that disappear. Allowing colleges to die makes sense only if we have something as good or better to replace them.
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Let me be clear: It is hard to blame wealthy universities for accepting nine-figure gifts — who wouldn’t? — and there are worse ways to spend a couple of hundred million dollars than on education (for example: a yacht with two helipads). But we should bear in mind the warning of Justice Louis Brandeis that “we may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” At a time when democracy is under threat from many directions, we are not well served when a few get much richer and everyone else a little poorer, be it in society or in higher education. Sooner or later, we will pay the price for such disparities.
We might be paying it now.
Brian Rosenberg is president of Macalester College.
A version of this article appeared in the February 8, 2019 i