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The college caste system

We all have in our heads the pantheon of great American colleges: Harvard, Yale, Stanford, MIT, the list goes on. But these schools aren’t the true gems of our education system. Our truly great schools have names like East Los Angeles College, University of Central Florida, UC Irvine, and the City University of New York. These are big, less exclusive, public schools and community colleges that graduate thousands of students every year, a disproportionate amount of whom are poor, non-white, and first-generation students. The students who graduate from places like UCF and East Los Angeles College will lead wildly better lives simply because these institutions gave them a shot. 

Education is meant to be the silver bullet, the great equalizer that tears down class divides and creates the social mobility that propels the American dream. These institutions are the engines of that dream. 

Take UC Irvine for example. Almost 30,000 undergraduates are enrolled there. 85% are BIPOC. 75% qualify for financial aid, the average cost after aid is 14k, and the admissions rate is 27%. They graduate 87% of students and 89% of Pell grant recipients. UCI gives thousands of students a year the shot at the upward mobility the American Dream promises. And you don’t have to attend prep school, donate, or row crew to access that opportunity. 

On the other hand, the schools we think of as great have perverted the purpose of education. In 2019, Harvard received 8,000 applicants with perfect GPAs, and 3,500 with perfect SATs/ACTs– yet they accepted less than 2,000 undergraduates total. And the lucky few they did accept already had their share of opportunity. Harvard has almost as many students from the top 0.1 percent of the income spectrum as from the entire bottom 20 percent. 

While sitting on a forty billion dollar endowment. 

If they wanted to, Harvard could more than triple their class size with no loss in academic excellence. Such a prestigious education dramatically increases the quality of life of every student it touches, especially if those students are underprivileged — but our ‘best’ institutions of higher education prefer to open that door only a crack.

In 1992 Harvard accepted 16% of applicants. In 2021 they accepted 5%. This conscious choice to value exclusivity and prestige rather than access squashes the notion of meritocracy. When class sizes are kept ridiculously small, it doesn’t matter how good your academics are.

 It’s the people who aren’t already at the top of the socioeconomic ladder who are left out. Harvard still prioritizes legacy kids, athletes (who are disproportionately white and wealthy), attendees of elite prep schools, and the children of donors. In such a crowded admissions process, these kids box the underprivileged out of the opportunities they deserve. 

By insisting to artificially constrain class sizes our most prestigious institutions of higher learning create American aristocracy where educational opportunity is, quite literally, passed down through bloodlines. 

Instead of expanding access, schools right now are in an arms race to be the most exclusive and prestigious, and we can see it here at Carleton. We have fancy new dorms, our dining halls are some of the best in the country, there are ice sculptures outside Sayles in the winter, and light installations that cost thousands of dollars. 

When Carleton pumps money into amenities instead of financial aid, into greater luxury rather than greater access, they are failing the purpose of education. Carleton itself sits on an endowment of more than eight hundred million dollars. Yet Carleton prioritizes legacy kids, has an average cost after aid upwards of thirty thousand dollars, and only 64 students in the class of 2024 are first-generation college students. Our class size has remained basically the same since the 1970s, while Carleton’s acceptance rate has dropped from 50% to 19% in the last thirty years. 

Why does the college insist on hoarding opportunity for those who already have it in abundance? 

We should not be proud of absurdly low admissions rates, we should be ashamed of them. A Carleton education has the potential to change and improve every life it touches, yet in the name of prestige and exclusivity, we slam the door of opportunity in the face of those who need it the most. Efforts to bring in more BIPOC, low-income, and first-generation college students are laudable. But if we increased our class sizes, we could be fulfilling the promise of the American dream for so many more. 

When we keep our admissions rates low and class sizes small we favor the haves instead of the have-nots: the children of donors, legacy kids, and prep school attendees. We fail to fulfill the promise of education and the promise of our country. We become guardians of an American caste system instead of the American dream.

One Comment

  1. Mike K. Mike K. May 6, 2021

    Hi Zak, interesting article on the role of colleges and universities across the country. While I can’t speak for any other institution, as student of color who has worked with the Admissions office specifically on the initiative to admit more BIPOC students, I can tell you that the difficulty in increasing class sizes relates is primarily a money, space, and atmosphere issue. Part of the reason that Carleton is attractive, and one of the key reasons I selected Carleton was because of the small class sizes which translates into a more tight knit campus community and smaller class sizes – all things I were looking for and I know a lot of others were looking for as well.

    On Money, the simple fact is that Nearly 50% of Carls receive some form of financial aid, in fact the college gives out so much aid that it needs to accept about 50% of each class who are willing and able to pay full price in order to be successful. Contrary to popular belief, not all colleges, Carleton specifically have money to just be thrown around. As to our endowment, endowments comprise of donations from outside parties that can strictly only be used in certain situations, usually predetermined by the donor, and donors essentially pay for the financial aid that Carleton dishes out.

    Additionally, residentially speaking the college can barely support the current amount of students residentially. Dorm-wise and faculty and staff-wise. There’s a slow trend towards increased class growth that the college is working towards, but they have to do so carefully and very thoughtfully. Additionally the location of the campus within the local community doesn’t exactly make population and expansion easy or recommended.

    Side-note: I recently spoke to an unrelated Admissions Counselor who told me that colleges tent to accept more legacy admits because they are proportionally more likely to accept offers of admissions.

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