December 22, 2007

Where PG Finds Herself Saying "Meritocratic" Without Air Quotes

by PG

I was nodding along with the first paragraph of this op-ed, which was about the gap of not only wealth but also health and education between rich and poor. But the second para made me wonder if the author had developed a sort of Carnegie guilt about his wealth -- without the self-punishing ethic:

In the realm of education, however, thereís a particularly corrosive shift thatís taking place, one that has tremendous consequences for the development of Americaís best minds: the growing gap between super-wealthy colleges and universities ó and the rest of the academic world. There is a widening division that gives top colleges and universities a huge financial advantage over their poorer counterparts.
Allen goes on to say,
Itís certainly true that these academic institutions have worked hard to be excellent. They deserve to be rich. They should be congratulated.
But should they be allowed to be so protected by the tax code that they can use their disproportionate wealth to raid poorer colleges and scoop up the best teachers by offering better pay, benefits and tenure-track positions? Should they further separate themselves from less fortunate colleges by taking the best high school students and offering them ever richer deals? (This month, for instance, Harvard announced that it would increase the financial aid it offers to middle-class and upper-middle-class students. Other schools are expected to follow suit.)

This argument only makes sense if one assumes either 1) that poor students aren't benefiting from Harvard et al.'s large endowments, or 2) we should want equality of opportunity for institutions, not just individuals. The first is an arguable point; people have pointed out how few low-income students attend the most prestigious and well-funded institutions. But it certainly doesn't seem to be for lack of financial aid. Brown was the last of the Ivy League to adopt need-blind admissions, but now nearly all the top colleges choose applicants without regard to their income, and then promise to give them enough grants, loans and work-study income so they can attend. If we want to get more poor kids into Harvard, the solution is not to make Harvard give its money to community colleges; it's to make Harvard give its money to poor kids as tuition vouchers (if you believe in the private school solution) or to college prep courses in public schools with high concentrations of poor kids.

Unfortunately, Allen doesn't say any of this. He makes what seems to me to be a preposterous argument for greater equality among institutions of higher education. It is sensible only if Allen assumes that the people whose abilities warrant the best teachers and the best classmates are not getting into the super-wealthy colleges, and indeed we fail to develop the talents of poor children who are stuck in bad schools. Having failed to prepare them to get into Harvard, however, I'm confused as to why they would benefit so much from having a Harvard-level professor at a less elite school. Certainly there are excellent community colleges, and good professors at those colleges, but if a professor merits Harvard's attention, why shouldn't he go there? The benefit of joining an elite faculty is not only in the salary; there's also the prestige and the opportunity to work closely with colleagues who are the best in their fields.

I have no problem with ensuring that the billions of tax-free dollars in endowments go to benefit students, but there is no reason why the benefited students should be the ones at institutions other than the endowed one. Good public universities gather their own endowment money from successful alumni and receive the investment of the state's money as well. Endowments are not a zero-sum game. If Allen sees a deserving but poorly-endowed school, he should donate his money there instead of, or in addition to, building a Center for Theatre and Dance at his alma mater.

Apropos of nothing, here's a fun set of stereotypes.

December 22, 2007 01:09 AM | TrackBack

I believe that the idea of changing the tax code in order to level the playing field between well-endowed colleges and less wealthy institutions would be a big mistake. Indeed, I believe that when wealthy institutions like Harvard raise the bar (for the ways that schools award financial aid, for the compensation of professors, et cetera), it forces other schools to raise their own standards.

Although I was no fan of trickle-down economics in terms of the for-profit corporate world, I do believe that it can work in the non-profit and educational sectors. Here's an example:I graduated from an Ivy League institution that was wealthy by most standards, but that -- at the time -- had much less money that Harvard. I feel pretty comfortable in saying that this institution looked at its wealthiest and most successful peers and sought to raise standards (and funds) so that it would be able to compensate its faculty and serve its students' educational and financial needs in the same way that better-funded institutions were.

Today this institution has grown its endowment exponentially, has dramatically increased in financial aid to students, and has increased faculty compensation.

Posted by: twilightandreason at December 22, 2007 02:23 AM

"Although I was no fan of trickle-down economics in terms of the for-profit corporate world, I do believe that it can work in the non-profit and educational sectors."

That reminds me that there are signs these non-profit educational institutions do use the money to benefit students. For example, there was a huge uproar at Harvard over how much the endowment's managers were being compensated for their work. It was undoubtedly "pay for performance" -- they were doing a great job with the endowment, and they left Harvard to take super-lucrative hedge fund jobs -- but the sense of the alumni, faculty and so on was that this kind of compensation was inappropriate for a university. I think there's a significant difference in how even people within the corporate world (as I'm betting most of Harvard's alumni are) see the nonprofit side versus the profit one: they are quick to attack any diversion of money from the non-profit's "cause" (in Harvard's case, educating students and advancing knowledge), whereas obviously the raison d'etre of a for-profit is to, well, make profit.

Posted by: PG at December 22, 2007 03:43 AM
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