Higher education’s new class system
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During his campaign, President Donald Trump found a sympathetic ear in those who believed they were not benefitting from past economic policies.

He promised voters that he would fight income inequality, yet his administration’s stances have instead been fueling class divides that favor those at the top at the expense of low- and middle-income earners.

How ironic.

Consider education policy.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently announced the rolling back of regulations that were designed to prevent for-profit institutions from defrauding students. Overwhelmingly, the for-profit colleges have benefited from enrolling students with low-income backgrounds.


Previous regulations held these institutions accountable for specific deliverables.

No longer.

The Trump administration seems content to make it easier for the for-profit colleges to benefit at the expense of students.

The Trump team’s instincts to placate their base may lead to more of these disastrous policies. It is also possible that lack of attention to higher education policy, with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos mostly interested in K-12 school choice, will lead to increased Congressional authority over higher education issues.

We saw renewed Congressional scrutiny in 2016, from House of Representatives and Senate members, of the high-endowment, selective colleges and universities.

Politicians and policy analysts have suggested reducing or eliminating the tax advantages for earnings on the endowments of these institutions, since they predominantly benefit higher-income students.

None of these moves will combat income inequality. By reducing regulations of the for-profits, low- and middle-income students are at renewed risk of borrowing to attend programs from which they won’t graduate and from which they won’t benefit in terms of better job outcomes.

Reducing the tax benefits for private, non-profit institutions could also disadvantage low- and middle-income students by reducing resources available for need-based aid.

Instead, America’s wealthiest, prestigious, non-profit colleges should open their doors even wider to students from low- and middle-income families, increase need-based financial aid, and make attending more affordable and accessible.

A large and growing number of selective colleges and universities in both the private and public sector with high graduation rates are in fact committed to doing so. Through the American Talent Initiative, these institutions are working to increase and support socioeconomic diversity in higher education.

Many more low- and middle-income students are qualified to attend America’s most selective colleges and universities than currently do. A commitment to do even more for these students will bring a variety of benefits. Students will benefit because these institutions have high graduation rates.

The institutions will benefit, because students will be educated in a more diverse environment. Living and learning is richer within a diverse community, as students are exposed to those with different life experiences and points of view. The skills needed to constructively engage with difference are ever more clearly needed in our society.

Finally, our economy and country benefit from investment in talented young people.

Attracting low- and middle-income students has become more challenging because of the increasing income inequality of the last 40 years.

High sticker prices discourage low-income students from even window shopping, helping for-profit education institutions to proliferate.

Higher education institutions’ commitment to educating more low- and middle-income students, while challenging, is more important today and can contribute to moderating the increasing inequality fostered by the economy and government policies.

While some schools have committed to do more, policymakers could encourage further progress by creating incentives for greater need-based aid, tying public subsidies to increased commitments to socioeconomic diversity on the part of colleges and universities. Ensuring that for-profit institutions do not take advantage of students is also critical.

Given the rollback of regulations coming from the Department of Education, the nonprofit sector and the media should step up and make sure students have the information they need about the for-profit sector, before using their scarce resources on programs that may have little return on investment.

Increasing the representation of low- and middle-income students at leading schools would increase the educational attainment of these students, addressing some concerns of President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump suggests some states may 'pay nothing' as part of unemployment plan Trump denies White House asked about adding him to Mount Rushmore Trump, US face pivotal UN vote on Iran MORE’s voter base about access to higher education. It would also improve equal opportunity and income mobility through more equitable access to higher education.

Less support for these institutions, however, would likely result in cuts to need-based financial aid, further diminishing socioeconomic diversity and reducing options for talented low- and middle-income students.

Fewer opportunities for students to thrive at top colleges.


Truly sad.

Catharine Bond Hill is managing director of Ithaka S + R and president emerita of Vassar College.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.