5 Years Later, the Growing Divide Worsens in Higher Education

Tony Marx will leave his post as president of Amherst College this week. During his tenure at Amherst, Marx visited The Chronicle‘s offices several times. It was a visit in 2005 that remains memorable for me because he discussed at length the lack of economic diversity at the nation’s most elite colleges, an issue he made a priority as president. (Marx received national attention again on this issue in a May column by David Leonhardt of The New York Times.)

We had already been thinking about a series of articles on the growing divide in American higher education. Many of our story ideas were focused on the haves and have-nots among institutions. But Marx’s passionate arguments that day helped add another story to the list: looking at how well wealthy colleges serve students with the least. A few months later we produced the first-ever list of the percentage of Pell Grant recipients at elite, wealthy colleges, a list we have repeated twice since then, including this spring.

Marx’s departure this week led me to return to our Growing Divide series of 2006. I asked our manager of editorial data research, Jeff Brainard, to update some of the numbers we used in our lead article in 2006. I wanted to see if the divide in higher ed is getting better or worse. The answer? It’s getting worse.

Here’s what we found:

  • Among the wealthiest private four-year institutions (in the top quartile of endowments), the median increase in instructional spending per full-time equivalent student from 2003-4 to 2008-9 was 10 percent. The growth in the bottom quartile (colleges with the smallest endowments) was only 3 percent.
  • Among colleges with the largest endowments in 2008-9, the median instructional spending per student was $17,934. That’s about $10,000 more than at institutions in the bottom quartile. In sum, this means that the top quartile is continuing to pull away from the bottom quartile in this measure of spending.
  • Here’s a another measure of the divide (hat tip to Thomas G. Mortenson of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education). Bachelor’s-degree attainment by age 24 among dependent family members in the top quartile of family income was 82 percent in 2009-10, up from 77 percent in 2004-5; in the bottom quartile of family income, it was 8 percent in 2009-10, down from 10 percent in 2004-5. (In 2009-10, the top quartile of family income was $108,284 and above; the bottom quartile was $36,080 and below.)

At a time when college costs continue to rise and getting into those elite colleges is more competitive than ever, how much support there is to make those institutions more economically diverse is unclear. As Jaimie Arona Krems wrote in a Letter to the Editor to The New York Times in reaction to the Leonhardt column, “college admissions are a zero-sum game. Universities putting their ‘thumb on the scale’ for a South Bronx applicant’s 1,250 lessens the weight of my achievements. His 1,250’s win is my loss.”

Even Tony Marx will admit that he was able to do only so much to diversify a small college like Amherst. But with his departure this week to lead the New York Public Library, higher education will have one less passionate voice on the subject.

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