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Do Colleges and Universities Perpetuate Income Inequality by Favoring the Wealthiest Students?

August 4, 2014 Jon C. Dalton Florida State University

My co-editor, Pam Crosby, and I are working on an editorial article for the February,  2015 issue of the Journal of College and Character.  We would welcome your ideas and feedback as we develop this piece. *

Widening Income Inequality

The topic of widening income inequality is widely discussed today, and some say may be the civic rights issue of our day (Reich, 2014).  The median wealth of Americans fell almost 40 percent from 2007 to 2010 (Stiglitz, 2012).  Today, the richest 1 percent of Americans earn 20 percent of the pre-tax national income (Gurria, 2014).  More and more wealth is becoming concentrated among a small group of super-rich individuals. Over the past three decades 85% of the economic gains have gone to the top 1 percent (Reich, 2012).  Meanwhile real wages have declined for men and women over the past decade (Reich, 2012).  

Higher Education’s Role in Widening Income Inequality

What is higher education’s role in addressing this problem?  Historically, colleges and universities served as a great “equalizer” by providing gateways for social mobility for the poor.  But today, rather than leveling the playing field in wealth distribution and social advancement, higher education, especially elite colleges and universities, may be promoting widening inequality by its admissions policies and student life practices.  More than 70% of students raised in families with incomes in the top 25% will earn a college degree by the time they are 24 years old compared to only 15% of students from families ranking in the bottom half of wage earners (Mettler, 2014).

Do colleges and university favor wealthy students in their admissions and student life activities and programs?  By emphasizing high SAT scores and portfolios of cultural and leadership experiences and achievements do colleges inherently favor the sons and daughters from the most wealthy families? The SAT is designed to measure aptitude, but it is also serves as a good yardstick for parental income (Deresiewecz, 2014).

The Impact of Student Affairs Programs on Low Income Students

Do student affairs staff unintentionally favor wealthy students in its design of student services and programs?  Are admission or registration fees charged that make it difficult for poor students to participate?  Do requirements such as service or participation in special events and activities prevent participation by students who must work or have family responsibilities?  Does the collegiate environment make it difficult for lower income students to fully integrate and feel a sense of belonging and acceptance?

What do you think?

·      Do you believe that colleges perpetuate the problem of widening income inequality?  If so, how?

·      Do you think that student affairs staff unintentionally favors wealthy students in their programs and services?  If so, how?

·      Do you think educators should pay more attention to social class in working with college students?

·      What suggestions do you have about creating a more level playing field for all students in college?

·      Do you think widening income inequality is a topic that deserves greater attention in higher education?

*A topic similar to this will be the focus of the 2015 Dalton Institute on College Student Values to be held at Florida State University on February 5-7, 2015.

Brooks, D. (2014, June 27).  The spiritual recession.  The New York Times, p. A23.

Deresiewicz, W. (2014).  Don’t send your kid to the ivy league.  The New Republic. Retrieved from http://www.newrepublic.com/article/118747/ivy-league-schools-are-overrated-send-your-kids-elsewhere            .

Guria, J.A. (2014). Widening inequality threatens U.S. growth and social mobility.  Retrieved from http://www.cfr.org/global/widening-inequality-threatens-us-growth-social-mobility/p32520.           

Mettler, S. (2014).  Degrees of inequality.  How the politics of higher education sabotaged the American dream. New York: Basic Books.

Reich, R. (2012).  Outrage.  What has gone wrong with our economy and our democracy and how to fix it.  New York: Vintage Books

Reich, R. (2014, June 3). Income inequality is the civil rights struggle of our time.  Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2014/06/03/robert_reich_income_inequality_is_the_civil_rights_struggle_of_our_time_partner/           

Stiglitz, J.E. (2012). The Price of Inequality.  How today’s divided society endangers our future.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company.