Can Higher Education Save Its Soul?

David Leonhardt of The New York Times is gloriously subversive.

In September, The Times published his alternative college ratings. Unlike other college and university’ rankings, Leonhardt’s list ranks colleges and universities by the economic diversity of their student bodies. Colleges are rated by the percentage of freshman who came from low-income families (measured by receiving Pell grants) and on the net price of attendance for low-income and middle-income families. Only colleges with four-year graduation rates of 75 percent or higher in 2011-12 made the list so—a limitation—it leaves out the colleges that most students attend especially working class and poor students.

The rankings pack a few surprises: Who would have thought Vassar College would head the list of colleges trying to create an economically diverse student body? Perhaps the college’s president, Catharine Bond Hill, gets the credit since she is an economist who works on higher education affordability and access.

Somewhat surprising, access and endowment per student are not strongly correlated. For example, Susquehanna University (Number 8 on the list with a $50,000 endowment per student) is more economically diverse than Number 9, Columbia University with a $320,000 endowment per student.

Some colleges are trying to walk the walk of economic diversity, but some are not. All this is interesting and informative, but it is not the reason why David Leonhardt is gloriously subversive. His work reaches right into the heart of the matter.

Ever since the great Academic Arms Race transformed large parts of academe from sleepy villages of inquiry into businesses bent on expansion, admissions policies have favored the wealthy because affluent families can pay “full boat”—to use an admissions term of art. Many other students must go into debt to complete their education, often using public funded loans.

The social algorithm here isn’t pretty. the young high school graduate who can find only a job flipping burgers is indirectly subsidizing another young person going to college, who in turn is acquiring debt that may very hard to retire. In short, the great Academic Arms Race is being paid for, in part, by the very people who can’t afford to go to college or who graduate from college with significant debts.

This just doesn’t seem right. There has to be a better way.

Last fall I visited the City College of New York, which is not on The Times' alternative rating list but has been educating working class and poor students for over 150 years. City College began as The Free Academy in 1849. Its founder, Townsend Harris, aimed to “Open the doors to all … let the children of the rich and the poor take their seats together and know of no distinction save industry, good conduct and intellect.”

Through many trials and tribulations, City College has remained true to this mission. U.S. News and World Report’s new rankings rank it first in the North for racial and ethnic diversity. The 2014 tuition at the college is $3,015 per semester. Not free, but still a bargain by today’s prices.

Diversity does not happen by magic. Like Vassar’s visionary president, the president of City College, Lisa Coico, believes in the equalitarian mission of her school and walks the walk when it comes to admissions policies, student aid, and support for enrolled students.

Colleges and universities require leadership that keeps its eye on the prize—and the prize isn’t always a new gym. Sometimes it’s a new student from a poor or working class background who is hungry for learning. Investing in the future means investing in human capital with “no distinction save industry, good conduct and intellect.”

Peter Cookson is a principal researcher and director of the Equity Project in Education at AIR.