Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
No matter what your financial standing is, going to college for four years is an expensive undertaking. Even going to a public state school, such as the University of Maryland, for four years will put you out tens of thousands of dollars. While some families can put that down without even blinking an eye, for many more it can be a struggle. This is why giving substantial financial aid to students who need it is critical — especially at schools whose tuition costs far exceed that of this university.
On the face of it, these top universities seem happy to oblige. Schools such as Princeton, Yale, and Vanderbilt rank among the most generous with their financial aid packages, and top schools are eager to highlight that generosity by spotlighting stories of students who rose out of poverty and excelled at their schools. However, if you look even a little beneath the surface, you’ll see that universities still mostly serve the rich, and they actively work to put up barriers which will make it stay this way.
Many of the most expensive schools in the country like to say that they are, in fact, affordable. Georgetown “admits and enrolls students without regard to their financial circumstances.” Yale “meets 100% of demonstrated financial need.” Harvard bluntly says “yes — you can afford Harvard.” However, if you look at the demographics of these schools, you can see that, despite their efforts, these schools are still largely for the rich.
A 2017 study from The New York Times found that 38 U.S. universities, including five in the Ivy League, have more students from the top one percent of earners than from the bottom 60 percent, and a 2018 report from The Boston Globe found that, at Harvard, rich students outnumbered low-income students 23 to 1.
So, while it is true these universities do award a lot of aid, these numbers suggest the majority of this aid is going to a relatively small number of low-income students. This becomes problematic when the stories of the one get as much or more attention than the 23.
Elite universities, aided by national news outlets, such as CNN and The New York Times, love to highlight inspirational stories of students who climbed out of poverty and worked their way to a spot at their school. The kids who are highlighted in these stories obviously did have to work extremely hard to get where they are, and I find a lot of their stories rather touching. However, as is already established, these kinds of students are far from a majority of these schools’ populations. These stories are the exceptions — not the rule.
We want to empathize with these students, which is what both the schools and the media are ultimately banking on. They use the genuine struggles and successes of these students to emotionally manipulate us in the hopes that we forget about all the people who got in because of legacy admissions or because their parents made a huge donation. Highlighting these cases with the message that anyone could get a spot at the school regardless of social standing is at best cynical and at worst dishonest.
The underlying message of these stories is that anyone can succeed at these schools if they just work hard enough, but behind-the-scenes it seems the schools are working to ensure that isn’t the case. Recent allegations suggest the actions of these universities were not just cynical, but intentionally setting up barriers for low-income students.
Sixteen top universities, including Georgetown, Yale, Dartmouth, MIT and more, were sued by former students who allege that they colluded to limit financial aid offerings, reportedly not a new practice for these schools. Can we really believe that they want to open up their admissions to all students when they make decisions which they know will do the opposite? The schools can only claim they will meet 100 percent of need because they know how many students they can afford to admit under that policy. Artificially limiting that money pool won’t affect the people who don’t need financial aid, it only ensures the university “can’t afford” to admit as many students who do need it.
What we have here is a case where the schools’ actions directly contradict their words. They know that they are perceived as elitist; that’s why they go so far out of their way to market their affordability and to boost the stories of those who don’t fit the stereotypes of one of their students. However, when behind-the-scenes they are working to make sure those stories are few and far-between, it is ultimately as empty a gesture at diversity as getting one of your few minority students to pose in all of your pictures.
So, to all the top universities, I beg of you to stop flaunting your generosity until you make some real efforts at class diversity and attempt to change the system you have benefitted from for decades.
Adam Cullen is a junior government and politics major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.