The $100 Million Prestige**

Brown University has just decided to spend $100 million dollars on itself over the next ten years to combat racism and foster diversity. Good for them. However, considering that Brown educates a minuscule number of students in the overall pool of college undergraduates, one might wonder if this is $100 million dollars well spent. (I am not commenting on the actual situation, just the amount of money being spent and the seeming effortlessness of coming up with it.)

Even if that money completely erased all traces of racism and achieved a utopian state of diversity at Brown, it would fail to make a dent in the problem as it now stands across the national college landscape. Nor would it address the far more compelling issue of access to college for underserved and under-represented students across the country. This expenditure is a perfect example of what I’ve been calling “micro-access,” where a college cloaks itself in the shining raiment of self-congratulation while ignoring the larger, systemic problems that contribute to students’ disaffection.

In his 2014 article for Empathy Educates, Robert Reich makes the case that private colleges and universities in the U.S. are increasingly subsidized by taxpayers through tax exemptions for private donations while American public higher education is increasingly starved of funds. This leads to the notion that perhaps private institutions should look beyond their campuses if they want to deal forcefully with access efforts. Reich outlines the major problems with this situation in his article, “How Private Ivy League Universities Take Funds From Everyday Americans.

It’s not that the private elites educate more children from poor families. One way to know is to look at the percentage of their students receiving Pell Grants, which are available only to children from poor families. (The grants themselves are relatively modest, paying a maximum of $5,645.)

In fact, the elite privates with large endowments educate a smaller percentage of poor students than universities with little or no endowment income.

According to a survey by the National Association of College and University Business Officers, only 16 percent of students in highly-endowed private universities receive Pell Grants, on average, compared with 59 percent at the lowest-endowed institutions.

At Harvard, 11 percent of students receive Pell Grants; at Yale, it’s 14 percent; Princeton, 12 percent; Stanford, 17 percent.

By contrast, 59 percent of students at the University of Texas in El Paso receive Pell grants, 53 percent at the University of California at Riverside, and 33 percent at the University of California at Berkeley.

Moreover, because public universities have many more students than elite private universities, their larger percentages of Pell students represent far greater numbers of students from poor families.

For example, the University of California at Berkeley has more Pell eligible students than the entire Ivy League put together. [Emphasis mine.]

It seems entirely likely that Brown could support some very substantial efforts to address students’ concerns with much less than $100 million, say $30 million. That’s a lot, although not as splashy a number. Let’s say they were still willing to spend another $70 million to address issues surrounding diversity and racism, which surely include access to college for capable underserved students. I would argue that $70 million could go a long way to promote macro-access if it were contributed to a fund that poorer colleges, those with greater percentages of Pell grant recipients, for example, could draw on to support their attendance financially.

If similarly-endowed colleges and universities contributed to this fund, colleges that enroll the vast majority of Pell-eligible students could draw on it to support them and their efforts. Without taking anything away from their own efforts to achieve diversity on their own campuses (my alma mater, Amherst College, has been a consistent leader in this area), these institutions could add national efforts to their achievements.

If Brown students and administrators are concerned not only with their own community but with the state of their brothers and sisters on other campuses, would this not be a stunning gesture in support of true diversity and access to college for all, regardless of ability to pay? In fact, it would be a noble effort for students at Empyrean colleges like Brown, Princeton, Harvard, Amherst, and so on, to insist that their institutions , whatever they might do at their home campuses, create a National Coalition for Access Funding, to be used by poorer colleges to enroll and support more low-income and first generation-college students. Intros way, they promote macro-access, not just micro-access.

Private colleges and their donors already receive extensive tax breaks, which means that the Feds already subsidize them significantly, and there is precedent (on a smaller scale) for colleges’ acting together to provide courses, transportation, and other cross-institutional support for students not their own. While some donors might object to their donations being used for “others,” the effort, presented as a way for privileged and wealthy colleges to help achieve the macro-access we really want for students of underserved backgrounds might change many minds. And these contributions would not significantly change the ability of the Empyreans to support their own students. Universities like Brown could become leaders of this effort by looking beyond their own campuses and seeing themselves as part of a larger and critically important system for educating all students, not just their own.

**From Middle French, conjuror’s trick, illusion, from Latin praestigiae, plural, conjuror’s tricks; influence, authority, weight, power exerted over the minds or behavior of others; the ascendancy given by conspicuous excellence or reputation for superiority.


About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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