When it comes to admissions, elite universities engage in an impressive feat of mental gymnastics: On the one hand, the now-mandatory press releases announcing this year’s class remind us of our love of meritocracy, as the admitted students represent the most talented, intelligent, well-rounded young people in the world. Last year, perhaps, a student with a 4.0 GPA who helped draft a constitution for a democratizing third-world country might have been admitted, but in this year’s class, only those who drafted a minimum of two new constitutions made the cut.
On the other hand, these universities have to acknowledge that they are still far from being as meritocratic as we might want to believe. Or, as it is known in corporate parlance, Even as there is more room to meet our goals of socioeconomic, geographic, and racial diversity, this year’s class represents our most diverse effort yet! Undergraduate education in the United States may be outrageously expensive, but these elite institutions have reached deep into their pockets to offer the most generous financial aid programs in history in order to make elite education accessible to everyone. (Which is why if you tax a giant hedge fund, the people you are really hurting are the poor, or something like that.)
So how equitable are these institutions, really? In other words, how much of the incoming class is made up of wealthy elites, and how much of everyone else? Fortunately, the press releases themselves contain all of this information. I happened to receive Harvard’s announcement in my inbox just last week. Thanks, guys!
After the boilerplate announcement from the admissions director about how this year’s class is the smartest, most talented, and most attractive class in the university’s history (sorry, last year’s class; your reign at the top was short-lived), we learn the following statistics (emphases mine):
Based on current projections, more than half of the Class of 2023 will receive need-based grants, allowing families to pay an average of only $12,000 annually. Harvard will require no contribution from the 20 percent of today’s admitted students’ families with annual incomes below $65,000, and these students will also receive a $2,000 start-up grant that helps with move-in costs and other expenses incurred in making the transition to college.
This is the 15th year of the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative (HFAI). Originally targeting students from low-income backgrounds ($65,000 or less), the program was expanded in 2007 to include middle-income families with incomes up to $150,000 or more. Since launching the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative in 2005, Harvard has awarded more than $2 billion in grant aid to undergraduates, and its undergraduate financial aid award budget has increased by more than 138 percent, from $80 million in 2005 to more than $191 million in 2018.
Shorn of its positive gloss, we learn that 20 percent of students come from families making $65,000 per year or less, and that in total “more than half,” which I take to mean slightly over 50 percent, come from families making less than $150,000 per year. Thus, the remaining “less than 50 percent” come from families making over $150,000 per year.
Median household income in the United States in 2018 was $61,372, according to the Census Bureau, pretty close to Harvard’s “low-income” cutoff. Households making $150,000 are around the 85th income percentile in the country. Assuming that this year’s class is anything like previous years’ classes, we can expect that more than 1/3 of students come from families making more than $250,000, based on surveys from the Harvard Crimson. That approximates to the 95th percentile of households in the country. Of this, based on data from classes of 2020 and 2021, possibly half comes from families making upward of $500,000 per year. That means that the share of students coming from families in the top 1% of the income distribution is only slightly lower than the share of students coming from families in the bottom 50% of the income distribution.
On the positive side, Harvard isn’t lying: if we squint really, really hard, this probably is an improvement of sorts in terms of socioeconomic diversity. A 2004 study found that 74 percent of students at “selective” universities came from the richest quartile of families, and Raj Chetty, Nathan Hendren, and others have found that students from families in top 0.1% are 77 times more likely to attend college than those from families in the bottom 20%—although technically the data provided in Harvard’s press release is not detailed enough to verify that their admissions statistics are, in fact, marginally more egalitarian than these general benchmarks. At the same time, however, that data also suggests that the share of students from the bottom 60 percent of households by income at Harvard and its peers remained basically flat at 20% for students born from 1980 to 1991; fast forward 10 years (this year’s class will mostly be students born in 2001) and Harvard’s percentage is basically the same, perhaps marginally better (since we know that 20% of students come from the bottom 50 percent of households.
A few lifetimes ago I argued that the price discrimination business model of American universities meant that most universities couldn’t become more egalitarian even if they wanted to because they were dependent on full-paying students’ tuition. At wealthy universities such as Harvard, however, such considerations should not be a factor: the sheer size of the endowment/hedge fund renders any immediate financial constraint irrelevant. There is already plenty of money in the coffers to subsidize tuition for an entire class of students; wealthy students are not required to cover the cost of educating poorer students. Yet, even without being reliant on a high-pay, high-aid model, and despite schools’ increasing rhetoric acknowledging socioeconomic imbalance, there appears to be extremely little progress in actually admitting a greater share of poor and middle-class students.
In other words, the student population at elite schools is still heavily skewed toward those who come from elite backgrounds. They are probably some of the smartest, most talented, and most attractive applicants, but the cultural capital they gain is inseparable from the economic capital with which they started. This raises deeper questions: can genuine class-leveling projects in the world of education ever succeed, or will elites always find ways to pass on educational privilege in one form or another? Or if education is not possibly democratized in the most fundamental sense of the term, how can a democratic society keep its aristocratic tendencies in check? In the absence of easy answers, perhaps the best solution is simply to do admissions by lottery. That won’t bother people, right?