State schools like the University of Michigan were founded as a way to offer equal educational opportunities to students. For example, Michigan was very active about promoting racial diversity in the nineties, doubling the attendance of African-American students.
But currently, the University of Michigan among others are having a harder time overcoming the issue of economic inequality. Michigan recently implemented a free tuition program for in-state students. Any Michigan resident whose family makes less than $65,000 annually can qualify for free tuition. However, at face value, the policy sounds like a winner, but after taking a deeper look, some of the cracks in the overall initiative reveal themselves.
The new free tuition policy simply is not effective enough to make a difference, and it actually ignores the root problem of economic diversity in college attendance.
According to a recent Politico article, ten percent of students at the University of Michigan are from families in the top one percent of earners. Meanwhile, 16 percent of students represent the bottom 60 percent of earners. This is an interesting point to make. Here’s why.
It can be said that top universities, and Michigan is an example, target high-income students while simultaneously pricing out lower-income to middle-lower-income students. In fact, this has been happening for some time now. There are a few different reasons to cover.
The first reason is tuition, and Michigan is a good example. When state funding for colleges dropped in the last few decades, many colleges sought to compensate by increasing the price of tuition. As tuition increased, the wages of many Michigan families remained stagnant. As a result, the school alienated students from lower income families; filling the gap, out-of-state high-income students started to take up more and more of the student body at the University of Michigan.
Furthermore, A D.C.-based think tank called New America recently analyzed data from the Equality of Opportunity Project. They found that the trend of stagnant wages and rising tuition has been present among many state universities since the late nineties. Nearly two-thirds of public universities increased the attendance of students in the top 20 percent of earners while reducing the number of students in the bottom 40 percent of earners.
As mentioned earlier, some universities, such as the University of Michigan and the State Campuses in New York, attempted to reduce the disparity in economic status by offering free tuition programs. However, it was also mentioned that this policy may not be all that effective, bringing up the second point.
Tuition aside, the argument can be made that the admissions process also phases out significant portions of low-income students while offering an advantage to students from high-income backgrounds. A free tuition program fails to address this.
Many universities put a heavy emphasis on standardized test scores, a metric that statistically favors students from high-income students. Additionally, there is often an emphasis on extracurricular activities which are more prevalent among private schools, a hallmark of high-income students. As mentioned, these requirements for admittance are a blockade to low-income students that a free tuition program ignores.
Interestingly enough, after leading the New America analysis, Stephen Burd concluded, “We are shutting the doors of higher education — of public higher education — to low-income students.” Burd added that public universities are increasingly starting to resemble private colleges.
Author: Mike Brown
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