San Francisco Chronicle
Top universities must enroll more low-income students
By Nicholas B. Dirks, February 23, 2017
The United States today ranks near the very bottom among industrialized nations in both income equality and social mobility. This should serve as a wake-up call: While the American Dream — the notion that those who possess talent and diligence should have an equal opportunity to rise to the top — is resilient, it is now more attainable abroad than in America itself.
Many factors have contributed to this alarming trend, and it will no doubt be difficult to counter. But the institutions that will play a uniquely important role in doing so are our nation’s top colleges and universities.
College graduates now earn around $1 million more over the course of their lifetimes than those with only a high-school degree, and this gap will only increase as the global economy continues to restructure in favor of innovation economies and knowledge workers.
Furthermore, we know well that those who attend better schools go on to get better jobs. Yet our system of higher education reflects our country’s wealth divide, and many highly gifted students from low-income families simply never get an opportunity to succeed at the best colleges and universities this country has to offer.
Consider: An average of only 22 percent of students receive Pell Grants (an indicator of low-income status) at America’s top 270 colleges and universities — a list that includes the University of California campuses, Stanford, the California Institute of Technology, the Claremont colleges, and many others. By contrast, 38 percent of students enrolled at all other four-year institutions receive such grants.
In short, the wealthier among us have access to the best schools, while those from low-income families, who would benefit most from education at an excellent college, are excluded. This produces impediments to social mobility and contradicts our self-understanding as a meritocracy. The public has every right to demand more.
This is why UC Berkeley has joined a coalition of the country’s top colleges and universities in the American Talent Initiative, a Bloomberg Philanthropies and Aspen Institute-led effort that met for the first time last week. Our collective goal is to educate 50,000 more low- to moderate-income students by 2025. While UC Berkeley already prioritizes affordability and enrolls more low-income students — 9,000, or 34 percent of our student body — than any other university of our stature, we consider it essential to our public mission to give California’s underprivileged a stronger foothold in society.
That public mission, I should add, may be under greater threat now than ever before.
The expansion of access to quality higher education has been advanced throughout history largely in a series of sweeping governmental acts — beginning with the Morrill Act establishing land-grant universities in 1862, and continuing with the GI Bill, the establishment of federal Pell Grants, and subsequent programs promoting the democratization of this essential good.
But in the current political climate, we can expect decreased federal support for higher education. And so the responsibility must shift to state legislatures, donors, nonprofits and, of course, the institutions themselves.
We must commit to opening the doors wider to America’s finest centers of knowledge. A failure to do so risks exacerbating trends in globalization, technological change and governmental policy that already favor the few over the many.
Read the full article here.