In many nations, class barriers to college are growing.
By Rana Foroohar
Aug. 21-28, 2006 issue - When students take to the streets, they're usually united against something like war or racism. But when Indian students took to the streets last May they had a different cause. These were children of the wealthy upper castes out to stop a plan to reserve more university places for their peers from poor and lower-caste backgrounds. This was youth versus youth, and they were fighting for the status quo.
Resistance to social-leveling campaigns in higher education isn't limited to India. When a top French Grande Ecole—alma mater of presidents and prime ministers—began giving preferential treatment to poor students, there was an outcry from the upper classes. In Britain, there are fears that efforts by top-tier universities to recruit more students from state secondary schools will dumb down the ivory tower. These controversies say something important about the state of academia: for all the pious attacks on injustice that emanate from universities, the class gap is growing from the United States to Britain, parts of Continental Europe and Asia. The reasons are myriad: state-controlled systems that artificially limit the number of university places, admissions procedures that favor the privately educated, falling financial aid and failing public secondary schools.
The bottom line is that the worldwide boom in higher education is not, in many cases, broadening its reach among the poorest. The proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds who have university degrees is rising across the 30 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and exceeds 20 percent in 18 of them. But in nations like Japan and the United States, where education costs are skyrocketing, the typical student comes from a much wealthier background than in the past. At Tokyo University, which has traditionally educated an economically diverse population, nearly half the parents of undergraduates now have incomes higher than $82,500 (well above the national average of about $57,500 for men in their 50s). In the United States, the percentage of students with families making more than $150,000 a year has been rising steadily for over a decade, to nearly 17 percent, while the proportion of those with a family income of $49,000 or less has been declining. A 2003 study of the 146 most selective U.S. colleges found that only 3 percent of students came from the poorest quartile of families, while 74 percent came from the richest.
By some accounts, the class divide is perhaps most pronounced in Europe. The slotting of children into vocational or university tracks continues to limit the upward mobility of many poor kids at an early age. Meanwhile, the relative lack of funding, particularly compared with the United States, means fewer new university slots to accommodate growth in demand. Today, only about a third of all secondary-school grads in the European Union go on to university, and working-class kids are highly underrepresented, especially at elite institutions. In the U.K., where Tony Blair's New Labour Party has made socioeconomic diversity in top schools a key priority, a recent survey found that the share of spots at Oxford that go to state schoolkids (in other words, not rich private-school grads) has fallen 5 percent since 2001.
Politicians and educators everywhere are looking for ways to fix the imbalance. But there's a lingering fear that easing the way for poor kids will bring down the quality of education and, thus, national competitiveness. "My honest opinion is that it is going to be a disaster," says P. V. Indiresan, former director of the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (Madras), about the proposed quota system. "No. 1, it introduces a new social tension which we never had in the IIT system before. No. 2, you need certain institutions in a country where you are able to stream the very best talent available. Once you get students of a lower caliber, there will be enormous pressure to reduce to the standard of instruction."
Business leaders second this sentiment, and not only in India. Almost everywhere outside the United States, where affirmative action has long been the status quo, there is resistance to changing admissions to favor the less advantaged. When Richard Descoings, the head of France's prestigious Sciences Po Paris, began aggressively recruiting kids from lower-class backgrounds in 2001, critics lamented the end of blind égalité and privileged students worried that the degree would be devalued. "There were eternal debates on whether this program fit in with the principles of the French Republic," says Descoings, "but nobody asked whether or not it was effective."
In fact, it was; this past summer, the first class of 15 pioneers from poorer suburbs graduated from Sciences Po with respectable results, some near the top of the class. Elsewhere, there's also plenty of evidence that, given a chance, kids from lower-income backgrounds can do just as well or better than others. In the U.K., for example, Sir Peter Lampl, head of the Sutton Trust, an education nonprofit, says that if admissions were based purely on A-level test results, two thirds of students at Oxbridge would come from state rather than private secondary schools. In reality, only about half of them do. "Many poor kids don't have the confidence" to apply to top schools, particularly since graduating secondary school students must apply before they see their test results, says Lampl. And while private secondary academies advise students on how to maximize their chances of admission, even how to target specific departments at certain schools, state-school pupils are left to their own devices. The result, says Lampl, is that top-tier universities in Britain are excluding some 3,000 qualified state-school students every year.
That has major economic implications, given that the wage premium on a top-tier degree has never been higher. According to a number of studies, if going to college increases your earning power, then going to a top university increases it exponentially. Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby has shown that graduates of top schools in the United States typically earn hundreds of thousands of dollars more during their lives than similarly accomplished graduates of state universities. Depending on the country, a person with a university degree can command anywhere from 25 to 120 percent more than one without.
Finances are a further burden for the nonrich. As numbers of college applicants rise, costly prep classes, which can run $50 or more per hour, are becoming de rigueur. In the United States, while the absolute amount of aid to university students is up, financial aid is being replaced by merit aid, which favors the middle and upper classes. In Europe, where universities are still tax-supported and practically tuition-free for everyone, the poor get no leg up on the rich, who already have every advantage.
That something must be done is obvious to most nations. Basically, the combination of aging societies and rising demand for tech-savvy workers mean that most rich nations face an emerging shortage of educated labor, one that can't possibly be filled by the wealthy alone. Some solutions are, of course, country-specific. Europeans need to modernize and, to some extent, privatize their university systems so they can better respond to the needs of the market. More flexibility is key; while the United States and Scandinavia offer all kinds of two-year or associate's degree programs, in many parts of Europe and Asia four-year degree courses are the only option. But in Norway, for example, a modular system allows students to balance school with work or family commitments. They can finish courses in their own time, acquiring certificates for specific skills over a period of months, or a year, which can eventually be combined into a degree.
Perhaps the best way to equalize university education is to improve secondary schools in poor regions. In India, the rate of absenteeism in state schools is 25 percent—and that's for teachers. "Poor but talented kids tend to go to impoverished high schools, where parents, teachers and other students are just less interested in learning," says Richard Kahlenberg, a fellow at the Washington-based Century Foundation. "What they need is to be around peers who have big dreams—that will allow them to work up to their potential."
In Britain, educators are trying to cultivate those dreams with a new program in which top universities would help identify talented students as young as 11, and help them stay on track to reach elite colleges. The ethos is reflected in Oxford's new recruiting slogan: "It's not where you're from—it's where you want to go." As the need for knowledge workers grows, it will clearly be more and more important for poor kids, as well as rich ones, to go all the way to the top.
With Jason Overdorf in New Delhi, Tracy Mcnicoll in Paris and Akiko Kashiwagi in Tokyo
© 2006 Newsweek, Inc.