Barely Legally

Confessions of a Moot Court Bailiff

On Working-Class Colleges

David Leonhardt writing in the New York Times about America’s Great Working-Class Colleges.

At City College, in Manhattan, 76 percent of students who enrolled in the late 1990s and came from families in the bottom fifth of the income distribution have ended up in the top three-fifths of the distribution. These students entered college poor. They left on their way to the middle class and often the upper middle class.

Lower-income students who attend elite colleges fare even better on average than low-income students elsewhere — almost as well, in fact, as affluent students who attend elite colleges. But there aren’t very many students from modest backgrounds on elite campuses, noted John Friedman of Brown, one of the study’s authors. On several dozen of campuses, remarkably, fewer students hail from the entire bottom half of the income distribution than from the top 1 percent.

(Emphasis mine.) This seems like a problem. I’m not the first to note this, but it’s absurd to credit elite schools with turning high school valedictorians into high-earning professionals. Kids who already do well on tests get into colleges that want them to do well on tests, where they later do well on tests and proceed to careers where they succeed. It would seem to me that a college could better prove its worth by showing how much improvement its students make.

For example, take William Deresiewicz’s incendiary 2014 piece in The New Republic Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League. Once you get past the fairly unimaginative ‘kids today are weak and spoiled and soft and in my day, we walked uphill to school in the snow’ schtick, he hits more or less the same line of reporting as Leonhardt’s “more students from the top 1% than the bottom 50%” bit. Deresiewicz points out this kind of income inequality has drastically increased over the last couple decades:

The major reason for the trend is clear. Not increasing tuition, though that is a factor, but the ever-growing cost of manufacturing children who are fit to compete in the college admissions game. The more hurdles there are, the more expensive it is to catapult your kid across them. Wealthy families start buying their children’s way into elite colleges almost from the moment they are born: music lessons, sports equipment, foreign travel (“enrichment” programs, to use the all-too-perfect term)—most important, of course, private-school tuition or the costs of living in a place with top-tier public schools. The SAT is supposed to measure aptitude, but what it actually measures is parental income, which it tracks quite closely. Today, fewer than half of high-scoring students from low-income families even enroll at four-year schools.

And Leonhardt again, on elite colleges admitting more affluent kids than working-class ones:

Because the elite colleges aren’t fulfilling that responsibility, working-class colleges have become vastly larger engines of social mobility. The new data shows, for example, that the City University of New York system propelled almost six times as many low-income students into the middle class and beyond as all eight Ivy League campuses, plus Duke, M.I.T., Stanford and Chicago, combined.

Six times! Now, you might know that CUNY is actually a university system of twenty-four colleges, and it’s larger than all but two state university systems: New York’s and California’s. CUNY has 274,000 students, while the twelve “Ivy Plus” schools have a combined 118,000 students. So on a per-student basis, that “almost six times as many” number is really more like “about two and a half times as many.” This is nothing to sneeze at, but I’m doing my part to combat innumeracy in 2017.

Well, okay. We all agree that income inequality is bad, and that America’s great working-class colleges do way more to fight income inequality than our Ivy-est schools, so problem solved, right? I’ll just read to the end of that Leonhardt piece to make sure the story has a happy ending, and-

State funding for higher education has plummeted. It’s down 19 percent per student, adjusted for inflation, since 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The financial crisis pinched state budgets, and facing a pinch, some states decided education wasn’t a top priority.

Oh, come on. ​