Liberals Have Created a Caste-Like Education System. It’s Time We Fixed It

Americans have long taken it for granted that college was the key to unlocking economic success. As President Obama said earlier this year, higher education is “the surest ticket to the middle class.” That may well be true, but it may miss the real problem: Colleges are getting very picky about who they sell those tickets to.

Jon Marcus reports for the Huffington Post:

Once acclaimed as the equal-opportunity stepping stone to the middle class, and a way of closing that divide, higher education is instead becoming more segregated than ever by wealth as state funding has fallen and colleges — and even states and the federal government — are shifting financial aid from lower-income to higher-income students, an examination of federal education data by the Hechinger Report in collaboration with The Huffington Post found. . .

Top colleges instead are increasingly focused on using financial aid to lure high-income students who they know are most likely to stay for four years, and who can pay much of their own way. This leads to a perverse outcome: a system that spends the least on those who need the most help, and the most on those who arguably need the least.

The reasons are myriad, and troubling.

Low-income students, by definition, come from families that can’t afford skyrocketing college tuitions, much less contribute substantial sums to boost the school’s endowment. That’s a problem when colleges are locked in an amenities arms race to lure, yes, even more affluent students. It’s a cycle that colleges seem unwilling to break.

The result is a backwards system based on patronage rather than merit. According to data collected by Education Trust, the lowest-income students with the highest scores on eighth-grade standardized test are still less likely to go to selective colleges than the highest-income students with the lowest scores. Overall, nearly three times as many top-achieving, high income students attend a highly selective college than top-achieving, low income students.

College administrators have piled insult upon injury by shifting student aid away from its traditional purpose–providing financial help to families who otherwise couldn’t afford college–to use it as a tool for student recruitment. Marcus writes:

Public and private colleges are offering wealthier applicants billions of dollars in financial aid that once went to lower-income students, the U.S. Department of Education found. While private colleges often say that they give lots of money in financial aid, they don’t specify who’s getting it, and the proportion of students who get aid for reasons other than need has doubled in the last 20 years, the department found. 

Finally, colleges are also increasingly loath to take a chance on academically risky students, which may hurt their perception among top-tier students.

“Take too many [low-income students] and your average GPA or SAT scores decrease. There goes your U.S. News ranking,” Angel Perez, vice president of enrollment and student success at Trinity College, told the Huffington Post.

This is the higher education system that the federal government not only encourages, but enshrines through its accreditation bureaucracy and ridiculous subsidization schemes. Worse, progressive candidates only solution is to throw more money into the mix, a plan that will only serve to further exacerbate the tuition spiral and grow the moral hazard of throwing taxpayer dollars at wealthy families.

Fortunately, the higher education system, which functionally operates exactly as it did one hundred years ago, is ripe for some conservative-led creative disruption. All that is needed is some innovation in order to break the cartel-like behavior of today’s colleges and universities. For instance, we could eliminate the college accreditation scheme to allow businesses to custom create technical curricula and apprenticeship programs, much like they do in Germany, which guarantees that graduates have a job waiting on them and ensures that businesses get the skills they need. Or, harness the power of technology to allow consumers to “shop around” for college credits from different sources and test out of subjects they’ve mastered.

The potential alternatives are endless. But first, we have to recognize that the traditional higher education system–which has somehow grown to include glitzy sports teams, gourmet dining halls, and spa-like fitness facilities–can no longer cater to the range of financial backgrounds of American families. Whether they know it or not, liberals are building a caste-like education system of haves and have-nots. It’s time for those of us who no better to do something about it.