The Agenda

The New York Public Library Is More Important Than Amherst

David Leonhardt’s column on selective colleges and universities is perfectly sensible. He draws heavily on the insights of Anthony Marx, the former president of Amherst who led a successful effort to attract more applicants and students from less-affluent backgrounds during his tenure:

When we spoke recently, he mentioned a Georgetown University study of the class of 2010 at the country’s 193 most selective colleges. As entering freshmen, only 15 percent of students came from the bottom half of the income distribution. Sixty-seven percent came from the highest-earning fourth of the distribution. These statistics mean that on many campuses, affluent students outnumber middle-class students.

“We claim to be part of the American dream and of a system based on merit and opportunity and talent,” Mr. Marx says. “Yet if at the top places, two-thirds of the students come from the top quartile and only 5 percent come from the bottom quartile, then we are actually part of the problem of the growing economic divide rather than part of the solution.”

Amherst, of course, is a very small institution, and so

Marx’s success in reversing these trends isn’t likely to make much of a difference, as Leonhardt acknowledges:

The result of these changes is that Amherst has a much higher share of low-income students than almost any other elite college. By itself, of course, Amherst is not big enough to influence the American economy. But its policies could affect the economy if more colleges adopted them.

The United States no longer leads the world in educational attainment, partly because so few low-income students — and surprisingly few middle-income students — graduate from four-year colleges. Getting more of these students into the best colleges would make a difference. Many higher-income students would still graduate from college, even if they went to a less elite one. A more educated population, in turn, would probably lift economic growth.

The Amherst model does cost money. And it would be difficult to maintain if Congress cuts the Pell budget, as some members have proposed. But when you add everything up, I think the model isn’t only the fairest one and the right one for the economy.

And now we’ve layered on a number of assumptions, which merit closer attention.

First, how many selective colleges and universities are there? Would raising working class participation in all of them to the levels achieved by Amherst make a significant difference in the broader economic landscape, as Leonhardt tentatively suggests? My sense is that elite colleges and universities have a good reason to pursue this course — to enhance their legitimacy as elite institutions — but it’s not obvious that the rest of us should care about broadening access to these institutions as opposed to investing resources in community colleges and other non-selective institutions, except insofar as we are stakeholders in highly-selective elite institutions.

Second, have subsidies made education more affordable and accessible? Or have they exacerbated cost growth in higher education? There is suggestive evidence, from Judith Li and Bridget Terry Long that subsidies contribute to rising tuition charges. Because Pell grants are means-tested, they appear to be a happy exception to the rule, though the means-test has grown less stringent since 2009.

Andrew Gillen suggests that we eliminate state appropriations and federal tax credits for colleges and universities while devoting more resources to what he calls “Super Pell” grants. Rather than simply lament efforts to cut the Pell grant budget, Gillen’s approach suggests that we eliminate spending that is effectively raising tuition and shift the resources towards a more effective program.    

Rick Hess has called for Pell grant reform that could lower the cost of the program:

 

The trick is to reconfigure Pell accordingly, so that a smaller grant might continue to effectively promote the familiar mission of expanding college access. One key lever is to foster virtuous changes in student and institutional behavior.

Today, for instance, Pell offers no incentives for institutions to worry about cost-effectiveness. Since Pell dollars are free to a student, institutions are encouraged to set tuition so as to soak up all they can. Meanwhile, the student has no reason to scrimp if tuition exceeds the Pell cap, and only modest incentives to comparison shop below that.

How about transforming Pell into something more like a federally funded education savings account that recognizes the mix-and-match opportunities and lifetime learning dynamic of the 21st century? Students could take courses—online or otherwise—from more than one institution at a time. This would allow Pell to accommodate increasingly customized offerings. Title IV eligibility would obviously need to be rethought accordingly.

Right now, Pell doesn’t encourage either students or institutions to accelerate time to completion. Meanwhile, students don’t benefit from making cost-conscious choices. Here’s a thought: Shorten the eligibility window; reward students who finish their degree or credential in an expedited fashion, as well as institutions whose students finish on time and find employment; and permit students to retain half of any unspent Pell dollars in a dedicated account for future education.

Leonhardt stresses that improving access for working and middle class students to an elite education would improve graduation rates. And that may well be true. But one wonders if there are lower cost ways to improve graduation rates, e.g., by structuring incentives so that subsidies flow to schools on the basis of efficacy and not just enrollment. 

The truth is that many of the most capable low- and middle-income students attend community colleges or less selective four-year colleges close to their home. Doing so makes them less likely to graduate from college at all, research has shown. Incredibly, only 44 percent of low-income students with high standardized test scores attend a four-year college, according to a Century Foundation report — compared with about 50 percent of high-income students who have average test scores.

“The extent of wasted human capital,” wrote the report’s authors, Anthony P. Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, “is phenomenal.”

There are many reasons students might choose a good state university close to home over Amherst or another elite institution, not all of them short-sighted or senseless. Students tend to do well when they’re embedded in a cohort of students who flourish together, whereas isolated students tend to flounder. Rather than hope that bright students will abandon less selective four-year colleges en masse, we could just as easily work to narrow the gap in the quality of instruction between less selective and highly selective schools through more effective use of open educational resources.

With that in mind, Richard Vedder of Ohio University made the following sober observation:

The demand for higher education grows with rising federal financial assistance, but the supply grows less rapidly, pushing up prices (tuition fees). Supply is comparatively rigid because the so-called best schools attain their lofty reputation by turning away customers: college rankings are enhanced by taking very qualified bright kids who likely will graduate (and are disproportionately affluent). Dropping money out of airplanes over the houses of college students (or its equivalent) is not the solution.

That is, the lofty reputation of the so-called best schools is precisely the problem. Ironically, Marx and Leonhardt are working to entrench these lofty reputations rather than constructively undermine them. 

I was struck by the fact that Leonhardt seems most concerned about beating back the following objection to the Amherst model:

Does more economic diversity necessarily mean lower admissions standards?

No, it does not.

I’m picturing the gruff Amherst alumnus muttering to himself, “Why, we can’t let working class kids in. It will lower standards!” That’s not my objection at all. Rather, I’m concerned about what happens to the students who can’t meet rigorous admissions standards. If Anthony Marx succeeds in airlifting out every bright student from America’s community colleges and less selective four-year colleges, will we narrow the economic divide he laments? Leaving aside the question of whether wage and wealth dispersion should concern us more than absolute upward mobility and the persistence of entrenched poverty, it’s not obvious that the answer is yes, particularly if this more efficient “cognitive sorting” weakens peer groups at the institutions left behind. 

That is part of why I wish we spent more time thinking about how to improve the quality and accessibility of open educational resources than we do fretting over the state of our elite schools. That is why Anthony Marx’s new role, as head of the New York Public Library, an institutions that serves a large and diverse constituency, is so much more important than that of any college president. I wish him well.  

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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