How top-ranked universities are becoming more accessible, one donation at a time

Posted 5 months ago
Oxford University aerial shot

In mid-November of this year, businessman, politician and philanthropist Michael Bloomberg donated $1.8 billion – in addition to the cumulative $1.5 billion he had already donated – to his alma mater Johns Hopkins to be used as financial aid for low- and middle-income students, single-handedly making the college effectively “need-blind”.

Bloomberg’s belief that Johns Hopkins and other colleges across the US should admit students on the basis of ability, irrespective of how deep their parents’ pockets are, is a fundamental pillar of the meritocratic American dream, and part of a wider drive to make college a possibility for every American student who wants to go.

The generous donation comes in the wake of a recent finding from The New York Times that some elite colleges have more students from the top 1% of the income scale than the bottom 60%. As many as half of all high-achieving students from low- and middle-income families also do not even consider applying to top colleges either because they know they wouldn’t be able to afford it, doubt they would get in, or aren’t aware of their options.

Bloomberg advocates a three-pronged approach. First, he says, advice for high school seniors need to be of a higher quality to encourage students from a greater range of socioeconomic backgrounds to apply in the first place. He cites a program his foundation runs called CollegePoint, which has managed to counsel nearly 50,000 students from lower-income backgrounds and help them navigate financial aid applications.

Second in this three-point-program, Bloomberg advocates that colleges increase their financial aid to support more students who need it. And thirdly, he advises individuals donating to their alma mater to direct their giving exclusively to financial aid programs.

In this way, America would make inroads towards leveling the playing field and overcoming the inequality that is becoming all too prevalent across the country. College is, Bloomberg says, the great leveler – and post-college earnings for students who graduate tend to be comparable regardless of a student’s background.

Bloomberg’s move comes amid a wider trend of concern around states gradually cutting their funding for public colleges over the past few years. These colleges – “the country’s most powerful engine of upward mobility,” according to Times columnist David Leonhardt – have long helped to change individuals’ and families’ trajectories through social mobility.

As states have begun to cut funding for public education, colleges have responded by offering places to students who can afford to pick up the bill (i.e. wealthier students). Leonhardt complains of a cognitive dissonance in which politicians trumpet their concern about social mobility and the power of the American dream while their policy choices contribute to an unraveling of that meritocratic fabric.

The Times’ College Access Index measures and ranks economic diversity at the country’s top public colleges, and demonstrates a clear pattern of decline in which the number of students receiving Pell grants, who tend to be from lower-income backgrounds, has dropped to 21.8% from 24.3% in a space of six years.

Bloomberg’s conclusion is that while private donations are a part of the solution, they can’t compensate for a system declining at the federal level. Federal grants, he says, have not kept pace with rising costs, while university level education is becoming ever more important in a globalized, digital economy.

Still, it’s not all bad news. Bloomberg’s gift is the largest donation in the history of American higher education, more than double the next one down in the list, and, with his challenge to other individuals of extraordinary private wealth, he has set a precedent for further game-changing gifts in kind.

Bloomberg is not alone in spurring progress. Many of the top private institutions have upped their game in recent years where it concerns prioritizing affordable education for a wider socioeconomic pool of applicants, and making their application processes need-blind.

The University of Chicago, already need-blind, has introduced a range of more generous policies and packages. In September, Rice University announced a series of expansions in its financial aid program, and many of the top colleges in the US – Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Amherst, and Yale – already run programs combining full need-blind admissions with full financial aid. If this trend continues, eventually, every qualified student who wants a great education will have access to it, regardless of economic means.

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