My mother was a sociology professor and made sure I was attuned to social class distinctions – muted though they may have been in the socialist paradise to the north. As a result, my view of the rich was informed by the wonderful British TV shows available in Canada, specifically the seminal Monty Python skit “Upper Class Twit of the Year.” In the skit, five useless rich Brits – including Simon Zinc-Trumpet-Harris (“married to a very attractive table lamp”), Nigel Incubator-Jones (“his best friend is a tree”), and Gervaise Brook-Hamster (“his father uses him as a wastepaper basket”) – compete in an obstacle course of obtuseness e.g., jumping over matchboxes, kicking a beggar, insulting a waiter, and shooting a tied-down rabbit. Oliver St. John-Mollusc, “thought by many to be this year’s outstanding twit,” fails to win because instead of running over the old woman, he manages to run over himself: “What a great twit!”
The irony is not that Oliver doesn’t know when he’s beaten (“He doesn’t know when he’s winning either. He doesn’t have any sort of sensory apparatus!”), but rather that Upper Class Twit aired in 1970, near the high water mark for income equality in the UK and U.S. Those of us under age 50 have known nothing but a bull market in inequality.
The drivers of increasing inequality have been thoroughly documented, particularly since the Great Recession set back tens of millions who had lulled themselves into believing they were keeping up. The first driver is globalization, particularly the globalization of finance, which has unquestionably allowed returns to capital to outpace returns to labor. The second is digital technology, which by dint of heretofore unfathomable margins and scale, not only – as Farhad Manjoo has recognized – “belches up a murder of new billionaires annually,” but as Eduardo Porter notes, establishes “small island[s] of highly educated professionals making good wages at [digital] corporations… which reap hundreds of thousands of dollars in profit per employee… [but which] sit in the middle of a sea of less educated workers who are stuck at businesses like hotels, restaurants and nursing homes that generate much smaller profits per employee and stay viable primarily by keeping wages low.”
The U.S. now finds itself with the highest level of income inequality among developed countries. Even more troubling, we have the highest level of wealth inequality in the world, bar none. Anger at this state of affairs exploded in the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011, inflamed Bernie Sanders’ 2016 near-takeover of the Democratic Party, and is fueling the rise of new progressive stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. AOC’s new policy advisor changed his Twitter handle to “Every Billionaire Is A Policy Failure,” portraying America’s tech elite as so many 21st century Upper-Class Twits.
With economic forces like these, we have two options for avoiding a future where elites use helicopters or flying cars to hop from walled residential enclave to walled corporate campus to walled country club – completely avoiding their fellow citizens. The first is to turn our back on capitalism, a path many Millennials appear to be following, and which has engulfed the home of the original Upper Class Twits. Resentment of elites and immigrants stoked the fires of Brexit, which would not only remove the UK from its current trading relationships, but leave the UK unable to trade much at all; in some unpalatable news last week, we learned the UK has a dire shortage of the right kind of pallets it would need for importing and exporting post-Brexit. One surefire way to reduce inequality is to make everyone poorer.
The second is to rely on our institutions for course correction. On the list of institutions that should be actively serving a redistributive purpose, higher education must be near the top. So the choice could not be more stark: in an era of crisis-level inequality, are colleges and universities part of the solution, or part of the problem? While we continue to pat ourselves on the back because thousands of bottom-quartile SES students graduate from four-year colleges every year as a first step to achieving their American Dream, the numbers demonstrate that higher education’s reputation as America’s engine of socioeconomic mobility is about as dated as the Upper Class Twit of the Year skit.
Today, families with incomes of at least $116,000 represent more than half the degrees awarded to traditional age students. And while 50% of twenty-four year olds with family incomes of $90,000+ have earned bachelor’s degrees, the number for families with incomes under $35,000 is less than 6%. Overall, students from top-quartile income families earn bachelor’s degrees at a rate that’s more than 5x students from the bottom-quartile. It turns out that success in college is a function of income more than ability: poor kids with the highest test scores are less likely to graduate than rich kids with the lowest test scores.
Lower income students are less likely to complete not only because life has a nasty habit of getting in the way of a 4+ year journey, but also because they’re increasingly reluctant to start. The rate of enrollment of low-income students has declined by 10% since the Great Recession. Some of this decline is a result of fewer low-income students applying: a poll from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation reveals that more than one third of high-achieving low income students are refraining from applying to any college due to concerns about college cost. But much of it is “melt” between application and start of school; up to 40% of low SES students who accept admission never show up for the first day of class.
But it’s unfair to paint this picture with a single brush. Our public colleges and universities which serve about 70% of all students have been handicapped by state funding cuts. As David Leonhardt has recognized, less money translates into fewer resources to serve low SES students. From 2011 to 2016, freshmen receiving Pell grants at flagship public universities fell from 24.3% of the entering class to 21.8%, with the most notable declines at the Universities of Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State, Rutgers, and Wisconsin. State support for Pennsylvania’s state system is about where it was a decade ago, but given cost increases, now only represents 27% of the system’s budget. Last month, new Chancellor Daniel Greenstein told the State Senate Appropriations Committee that projected “funding gaps cannot be made up by increasing tuition without alienating students from low- and moderate-income families.”
Of course, not all degrees are created equal, and this is where we really fall short. At selective universities – those admitting fewer than 50% of applicants – 75% of students come from the top income quartile while only 5% come from the bottom quartile. At 38 of our most selective colleges and universities, there are more students from the top 1% than the bottom 60%. And these numbers are based on income. If some enterprising researcher could figure out the number based on wealth, it would be even harder to argue that our top schools are more solution than problem.
Some selective schools are trying harder than others, but some don’t appear to be trying at all. Last week, the Providence Journal reported on private networking dinners at Brown University organized by Brown’s advancement office and funded by a former trustee. At these dinners where students sup on “truffle-scented egg and mushroom duxelles,” invitations are limited to the sons and daughters of Fortune 500 CEOs, financial moguls, and celebrities. One attendee, the daughter of two doctors, noted that almost all of the dinner guests “are richer than I am.” The existence of university-sanctioned dinners for the elitest of the elite is surprising, even for a school where the median parental income is now over $200,000, and which – as Daniel Golden noted in The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges – And Who Gets Left Outside the Gates – “has practiced celebrity admissions more assiduously [and] successfully” than any other university. It’s a gated community inside a gated community. I can already hear the helicopters or flying cars over Providence.
In his 2017 column “How We Are Ruining America,” David Brooks recognized that “members of the college-educated class have become amazingly good at making sure their children retain their privileged status . . . [and] making sure the children of other classes have limited chances to join their ranks.” Contemporary American Oliver St. John-Molluscs and Vivian Smith-Smythe-Smiths have turned America’s engine of socioeconomic mobility into a brake, and higher education’s failure to resist and counteract this force represents our own Marie Antoinette “Let them eat cake” moment.
Despite shining examples like Arizona State, where more than half of new students now come from underrepresented populations, and Georgia State and CUNY’s ASAP program, where a series of important process improvements have materially improved completion rates for low income students, we may have reached a point where reform is less likely than revolution. Last month, New America Foundation sent a set of new policy proposals to Democratic Senators including ending Title IV financial aid eligibility for colleges and universities that use legacy admissions, and requiring selective schools to adopt lottery-based admissions if they want to continue to access Title IV and federal research dollars. The admissions lottery would be open to students who meet minimum admissions criteria (e.g., test score and/or GPA), and make other factors irrelevant. It’s not inconceivable to me that a future administration could decide that Ivy-covered walls represent nothing more than another elite enclave and put the mockers on the whole college enterprise by barring employers from requiring degrees in job descriptions.
If they’re sincere about being part of the solution, America’s colleges and universities must recognize the scale of our inequality crisis and respond with equal vigor. Marginal improvements in admitting and completing low SES students are no longer enough – particularly when colleges think their job ends with graduation and disregard the underemployment and student loan debt that plague the low income and first generation young alumni they’re most proud of. Colleges and universities that wish to be much more than finishing schools for Upper Class Twits have no choice but to revisit and reconceptualize all that they hold dear, including that workforce needs are largely irrelevant, that they prepare students for their fifth job (but not their first job), and the sacred cow that the only pathway to success requires at least four years.