The indictment of roughly 50 people in a scheme to use bribing and cheating to guarantee certain wealthy students spots at specific colleges is just one — albeit extreme — example of the millions of dollars spent regularly to ensure a small share of college students have a successful experience.
Most students aren’t so lucky.
Parents allegedly paid $25 million parents to William “Rick” Singer, the college counselor who facilitated the scheme, to bribe athletic coaches to reserve spots for their kids. That money could pay for 3,871 low-income students to attend community college for free for year. That’s according to Debbie Cochrane, the executive vice president of the Institute for College Access and Success, an equity-focused think tank, who made the observation on Twitter this week.
$25 million = enough to pay for 3,871 low-income community college students’ total college costs for a year. https://t.co/SOlrkBVSk4
— Debbie Cochrane (@dfcochrane) March 13, 2019
Cochrane’s tweet — which is based on data from the Department of Education on the cost of attending a community college for a low-income student — and the admissions scandal more broadly, highlights an uncomfortable truth about higher education, which is often imagined as an engine of mobility.
An elite tier of schools that educate a tiny fraction of America’s college students capture the bulk of the attention, angst — and crucially — money devoted to higher education institutions.
On the other hand, community colleges and regional public four-year schools, which together educate the bulk of undergraduate students receive a small fraction of those funds.
“Higher education is bifurcated between institutions that enroll and educate most students, particularly most working class students and students of color, and a small group of elite institutions that tend to reproduce privilege,” said Mark Huelsman, associate director of policy & research at Demos, a left-leaning think tank.
A stark example of this dynamic: 20 colleges that educate just 1.6% of students took in 28% of the donations to higher education institutions last year. But public resources are also distributed unequally.
Research from Mark Schneider, now the director of the Institute of Education Sciences at the Department of Education and the president of Nexus Research and Policy Center has found that for every $1 in taxpayer subsidies sent to regional public campuses, taxpayers spent as much as $22 subsidizing their local wealthy private university. At community colleges the ratio was as high as $44 to $1.
“The engines of opportunity and the institutions that are doing the lion’s share of educating most of our students, never get to make the case that $25 million dollars or $50 million would be better spent in their hands,” Huelsman said. “Community colleges and less selective public four-year colleges have to scrape and claw for every dollar they get in public funding and critically they have to justify everything that they do as being worth public resources. A story like this shows how flawed that system is.”
This vast difference in resources has consequences. Private research sector colleges spent $35,059 educating each of their students during the academic year of 2011, according to a report by the Century Foundation, a think tank. Public community colleges spent just $9,550 per student.
Colleges that can afford to spend more on their students are usually able to offer them better outcomes. Schools with fewer resources aren’t able to provide as much help to their students getting to and through school. Low-income students and students of color are more likely to attend the latter, which is part of the reason why they struggle more to pay back their student loans and get the maximum value out of their degree.
Shifting this system would require a re-thinking of how we allocate public resources to colleges, Huelsman said. States would need to think more critically about how to direct funds to schools educating the bulk of their students and the federal government could play a role in equalizing treatment between well-resourced and less-resourced colleges, he said.
In the meantime, the college admissions scandal struck a nerve in part because it illustrates clearly that getting access to the types of schools that guarantee good outcomes isn’t based on merit, Huelsman said.
“The notion that very, very well-resourced institutions are only accessible either through outright bribery or incredible wealth in general is something that people understand,” he said.
Get a daily roundup of the top reads in personal finance delivered to your inbox. Subscribe to MarketWatch’s free Personal Finance Daily newsletter. Sign up here.