One of the pillars of our education establishment, The Education Trust, recently published a report meant to pressure colleges and universities with large endowments into spending more of their earnings on one of its pet causes – very low or even free tuition for students from poorer families. The study, “A Glimpse Inside the Coffers: Endowment Spending at Wealthy Colleges and Universities,” claims to show that these institutions “aren’t doing nearly enough” to help such students.
To cite just one example from the report, suppose that the University of Pennsylvania were to raise its endowment spending up to Education Trust’s recommended five percent level – and spent all of the additional money on reducing tuition for poor students. By doing that, Penn could double the number of low-income students entering the school, from 109 per year to 218 per year.
Now, I am no fan of the way our colleges and universities that have gigantic endowments choose to spend their money. I think that too much goes toward the student amenities arms race, toward the hiring of unnecessary administrators who have to pretend to be busy at jobs such as “Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion,” and toward luring “star” faculty members who don’t teach much, away from other schools. But just because they waste a lot of money already is no reason to favor Education Trust’s plan.
Here is the fatal flaw. Going to an elite, high-cost college is little or no better than going to a lower-cost, non-elite one. Sometimes, in fact, students (no matter their family’s finances) get a superior education at a non-prestige school where there are fewer distractions and where the faculty pays more attention to the undergraduates.
Is Prestige Worth the Cost
Sticking with Penn, let’s suppose that the university decided to follow Education Trust’s advice and succeeded in enrolling an addition 109 students from low-income families with very low tuition and other fees. Penn is indeed a very famous school, but where would those 109 students have gone otherwise?
Perhaps some would have gone to a private liberal arts college in the state or region. Grove City College is a possibility. For decades, the administration at the school has kept costs to the lowest possible level (although certain it isn’t free) and, even more important, students get lots of direct attention from the faculty. Courses are taught by experienced professors, not by grad students. The curriculum remains solid, not full of trendy, narrow, politicized classes.
Yes, a degree from Penn is regarded as prestigious – far more so than a degree from Grove City or most other schools, public or private, in the state. The question, however, is whether that prestige is worth the trade-offs to get it.
Evidently, the people at the Education Trust (along with a majority of America, I’d guess) think so. That is because they have bought into “the Chivas Regal effect” – namely the notion that something must be better in quality simply because it costs more.
Leaders at our high-cost colleges have been promoting that idea (and cashing in on it) for years. It just isn’t true, however. Going to a high-cost, elitist school is neither necessary nor sufficient for students to get a good college education and get on track for a successful career.
I don’t often agree with New York Times writer Frank Bruni, but his book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be nailed an important truth. (My review of the book is available here.) Students often do very well at colleges that almost no one has ever heard of; conversely, the environment of big, famous schools can be damaging to some students.
I will add one further objection to Education Trust’s “More Free College!” idea. To the extent that Penn or any other wealthy university enrolls more students who are from relatively poor families, it will also have to reject an equal number of other students who aren’t from low-income households. Some and probably most of those students will be very highly qualified students who were eager to go to Penn despite the cost.
Those students will most likely be ones who don’t check off any “diversity” box and are therefore expendable in the school’s enrollment management calculus – in other words, sharp Asian kids. They will have to settle for one of their backup schools.
I’m not saying that is a national disaster, but it does mean shuffling some of our best students away from colleges where they’d have been challenged and into ones where they’ll do fine but perhaps not their very best.
For all the lip service they pay to various “social justice” ideas, college leaders, are pretty steadfast in protecting their freedom to use their wealth as they think best. I hope they live up to that and ignore the Education Trust.