College: a haven for the rich?

I just finished reading a New York Times article warning of how the wealthy are coming to dominate college admissions (Google link). Some of the statistics in the article are staggering. For instance:

More members of this year’s freshman class at the University of Michigan have parents making at least $200,000 a year than have parents making less than the national median of about $53,000


When most people think of a typical college student, they’re thinking about eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and having massive debts,” said Scott E. Mendy, a junior from Tigard, Ore., who receives financial aid. At Michigan, he said, “people live very well.”

The article features a graphic showing how these numbers have changed since 1985 (coincidentally, the year I started college). At the top 250 colleges, the number of students from households in the top 25 percent for income has risen from 46 to 55 percent. The number in the middle 50 percent (where I think I would have fallen) declined from 41 percent to 33 percent.

So the number of kids like me in top colleges has declined from nearly half to basically a third of students, while the wealthiest students are now a clear majority. I wonder what it feels like for lower and middle-income students in college today. When I was in school, the rich kids were almost embarrassed by their wealth: they didn’t flaunt it, they tried to fit in with the majority of us who were juggling work-study jobs and extracurriculars. Now, with this shift in demographics, I imagine that it’s the middle-income kids who are trying to “fit in.” Instead of a college culture of poverty, it’s a culture of wealth.

College for me was a haven, a place where I could relax and become the person I always wanted to be. I’m not sure if that’s what it would be today: the pressure to mix with the elite classes who now dominate higher education threatens to turn college into a rat race where the goal is to see and be seen, to make connections, to wheel and deal. As I work to help my kids succeed, to get the grades they’ll need to get in to the most prestigious colleges, I wonder if it will even be worth it by the time they get there.

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One Response to College: a haven for the rich?

  1. Dave says:

    I hate to comment on my own stories, but I was just thinking about this data a little more, and I came up with a way in which it’s probably a little distorted. More kids come from families with incomes greater than $200K than with incomes less than $53K, which is the national median. However, College kids don’t come from average families–the “average” family includes parents, single people retired people, etc. What’s the “average” family whose kids are in college? For the most part, the parents are probably in their 40s or 50s. What’s the average income for this group? A lot more: According to this table, the median income for that age household was $74,000 in 2001. I suspect when that’s taken to account, there are more kids from lower-income families than there are from $200K-plus families. So the data may be mitigated–but it doesn’t completely eliminate the trend for the top schools to be dominated by wealthier and wealthier kids.

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