David Leonhardt has a nice post over at his NYT blog about the continuing lack of economic diversity at elite colleges:
I thought of the joke while looking through the Chronicle of Higher Education’s fascinating interactive graphic on the percentage of students at various elite colleges who are Pell Grant recipients. Pell Grants are easily the country’s largest financial-aid program and, as a rule of thumb, they tend to go to students who come from the bottom half of nation’s income distribution.
In 2008, the most recent year in the Chronicle’s data, a mere 6.5 percent of Harvard students received Pell Grants. And Harvard wasn’t all that unusual among elite colleges.
Athletes, of course, received a leg up in the admissions process. So did racial minorities and the children of alumni, the study found. But not poor students.
This is a really important phenomenon to keep in mind. In many ways, universities are the educational institutions that have done the best job of combating social inequalities. But as Leonhardt points out, the nation’s finest institutions are still lagging in bringing lower income students into the fold and providing them with an education they deserve. Not only is this unjust, but it’s also stupid. As Leonhardt says, these students are also those “who appear to gain the most from an elite education.” Both these individuals and our economy would benefit from giving them access to elite institutions.
What surprises me about Leonhardt’s post, though, is how he so neatly separates racial diversity from economic diversity. They are, of course, two completely different things, and racial diversity is valuable in itself for a variety of reasons, but Leonhardt fails to emphasize that racial inequalities often track economic inequalities. In 2006, for instance, the median income for white Americans was $50, 673, almost 60% higher than the median income for blacks and about $13,000 in excess of the Hispanic median income.
No doubt Leonhardt is aware of this, but it’s odd that he says racial minorities “received a leg up in the admissions process” and poor students didn’t. While that may be true, his way of putting it makes it sound as though issues of racial diversity are basically “taken care of” at these universities, which disguises the fact that a lack of economic diversity points to continuing racial injustices in our society. In the end, it’s important to remember that the fight for economic diversity and the struggle for racial justice are inseparable, both at elite universities and in society at large.
I’m also a bit surprised to see that only 12.8% of U-M students receive Pell Grants. That may not reflect a lack of economic diversity on our part—it’s entirely possible that other forms of financial aid promote economic diversity at this university—but it’s still an oddly low number. I’d be interested to see a breakdown of family incomes of for the U-M student body, but I’m not sure if that sort of information is available. But of course, dear readers, if you know of any publicaly available data like that, feel free to post it in the comments section.
(Photo by Patricia Drury under a Creative Commons license)