The Economic Divide is Growing on College Campuses

Posted By Eliana Osborn on February 3, 2016 at 4:10 pm
The Economic Divide is Growing on College Campuses

Just look at the websites of a few different colleges, and you’ll start to pick up on some major differences pretty quickly.  Some schools have new buildings, while others seem stuck in past decades. Some have flashy amenities like gourmet dining, movie theaters and hot tubs, and others – well, don’t. There’s a real divide in higher education between institutions with lots of money and those barely getting by, and it shows in many areas.  That gap isn’t getting any smaller, and it may signal long-term problems for schools when it comes to staying competitive in admissions.

Schools like Harvard University, MIT and Stanford have massive endowments.  That means that tuition makes up only a small fraction of their finances.  An April 2015 report by Moody’s Investment Services found that the top 10 richest universities hold one-third of the wealth in all of higher education (out of thousands of colleges).  The top 40 schools are responsible for two-thirds of the cash and assets in this sector.

Now, the Hechinger Report highlights what these financial differences mean for student life on campuses across America.  Low-income students primarily attend schools that don’t have a lot of money.  That means their educational experience looks vastly different than the idyllic perception most people have of college.  Broken-down buildings next to freeways, lack of lighting or adequate heating and cooling, and sub-par cafeteria offerings are typical at schools without big names or endowments.

On the other end of the spectrum? Custom lunch options, high-tech classrooms and tools, innovative libraries and more.  The result? Instead of college being a way to spread middle-class values, the wealth divide in America is reinforced in the education system.

A Lumina Foundation report, College Costs and Prices, found that many community and junior colleges spend less per student than even primary and secondary schools.  And while we may want to believe that more money doesn’t necessarily mean a better education, there is no doubt that underfunded institutions struggle to provide the same quality or experience as wealthy ones. The disparity in assets and bank accounts only worsened over the recent recession, according to Moody’s, as big funds were able to make riskier investments that paid off more quickly.

The Boston Globe explains, “Schools with less wealth and prestige must be smart with their money and work harder to attract students.  The 20 richest private schools earn only 15 percent of their revenue from student charges,” compared to 75% at most private colleges.  The schools hardest hit are those in the middle of the pack, who’d like to recruit top students and offer scholarships but simply don’t have the money to do so.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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