Two recent news articles I read online and one piece of snail-mail I received from the Office of Admissions at Stanford University have brought home to me, quite literally, the troubled, troubling state of higher education in America. Something must be done, and, for reasons I will explain below, I think Stanford should help get it done. Indeed, there are two specific things I would like to see my alma mater do. My fond hope is that Stanford University, though a private institution, will take the lead in the effort to salvage public faith and public funding for higher education, and especially for the public university system in its home state and mine.
The first news article I mention above described a new hiring protocol under consideration at Yahoo!. The idea, apparently favored by CEO Marissa Mayer, is to hire graduates from only the most elite institutions. Those who do not have a degree from Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Yale and the like need not apply. As the article points out, this “cream of the crop” strategy might very well backfire. In a business climate that depends on creativity and innovation, hiring people from a handful of similarly positioned and provisioned schools can lead to a workforce where similar perspectives, with similar blindspots, predominate. Over the long term, such a policy is more likely to foster conformity than creativity.
But over the short term, such a move by industry leaders would place an additional premium on the importance of getting into a “top” school, and it would further devalue degrees from less elite universities (read: every publicly funded university and state college in America), while at the same time making even more of those public university graduates compete against each other in the Hunger Games of the entry-level job market. To assume that gifted and promising students graduating from public universities are automatically less qualified than those graduating from Stanford, the Ivies, and their aspirant epigones is to further undermine the role that public higher education once played in helping families move from the working class to the middle class.
In that connection, the second news item I mentioned reports a distressing fact: many outstanding students from disadvantaged, low-income, and working-class families do not even bother applying to elite schools, even to those schools whose financial aid policies would entirely cover the cost of their education. Stanford University is one such school. Under Stanford’s current financial aid policy, implemented in 2008, students from families making less than $60,000 pay nothing at all to attend the university, while those from families making more than $60,000 but less than $100,000 pay only room and board. Further, Stanford guarantees to meet the gap between student need and yearly cost without resorting to student loans. The university’s goal is for its students to graduate debt free.
Such a policy is commendable. In a political climate where public higher education is increasingly devalued and defunded, where more and more of the cost of training the workforce is born neither by employers nor by the state but by those who are themselves in need of employment, turning the nation’s higher education system into one big company town where new employees can look forward to working for their entire professional lives just to pay off the debt they incurred so that they could find work in the first place — in such a climate, at such a time, Stanford and some of its similarly well-endowed sister institutions have planted the flag of opportunity on a tiny patch of elevated ground.
Nevertheless, in the applicant pool at elite institutions, the underrepresentation of low-income or working-class students, including a disproportionate underrepresentation of minority students, will surely continue. It is getting more and more expensive for students to build the kind of dossier that helps them stand out among a sea of highly motivated, highly qualified applicants whose families do have the resources to give their children every advantage. The more public K-12 education funding is cut, the more budgets are squeezed, the more school-based extracurricular programs disappear and the cost of participation in remaining programs is carried by individual families instead of by the whole taxpayer base — the more that these things happen, the less that students who do not have access to adequate financial resources will be able to meet the ever-higher bar for admission into increasingly exclusive private universities.
How exclusive is exclusive? This year, the admission rate for Stanford will be about five per cent (5%). I know the expected admission rate because of a letter I received about a month ago from the Office of Admissions.
Since I have not recently applied for admission to the university, I was surprised to see the return address on the envelope. I was even more surprised when I opened the letter and learned why I had received it: because a relative of mine has applied for admission to Stanford’s 2013-2014 freshman class. This letter was sent to reassure me that, since Stanford values “family ties to the university,” this applicant’s family connection to me as an alum will be “one of many aspects” taken into consideration in reviewing the application.
I have never been more shocked in my life.
I was the first person in my family to go to a four-year university — maybe even to a four-year college, now that I think of it. In fact, on one side of my family, I was the first woman to go straight through high school. So not only did I have no “legacy” at Stanford when I got there; I did not even know what a “legacy” was. And even after I graduated, I did not realize that such advantages could accrue to me — or, I guess, through me. I knew that the name “Stanford” on my diploma could open doors for me; I had no idea it could open doors for other people too.
Live and learn.
So now I have this very gracious letter, which makes no promises about my relative’s status as an applicant, but goes out of its way to emphasize the fact that what is true for “legacy” applicants is true for applicants in general: the vast majority of them will not be offered admission to the University. Nevertheless, the letter states that those applicants who do have a Stanford connection will be admitted at a rate that is higher than the applicant pool in general. The letter also provides a phone number and an email address, in case I have any questions.
For almost a month now, I have been puzzling over this problem: what am I to do with this letter? Do people actually ever call this number? What in the world do they say? Can that do anything to benefit the applicant in question? Should it?
People have very different views on legacy admissions. I am sure that applicants without a legacy connection think they are very unfair indeed. At the same time, letting alumni know that the university values legacy ties no doubt encourages the kind of institutional loyalty and alumni donations that help underwrite the generous financial aid that Stanford and other privately funded institutions can offer.
To be perfectly honest, I learned about this perk so recently that I am still trying to figure out what to think. So I am not going to make an argument right now either for or against legacy admissions.
However, as I mentioned above, there are two things that I would like to see Stanford do that could result in better educational opportunities for less advantaged students, not only at Stanford but at public universities as well.
Let’s start with the “easy” part…
I would like to see Stanford abandon its need-blind admissions policy in favor of a need-aware admissions policy, instituting an affirmative-action admissions program based on family income. I want Stanford to actively recruit low-income and financially-needy students. For every legacy student Stanford admits whose family makes more than $100,000 a year, I would like to see them admit a non-legacy student whose family makes less than $100,000 a year.
At this point, my readers might be saying, “Aha! I see where this is going. The author got a ‘legacy letter,’ but her family members don’t have a ‘legacy income’ to match. She wants the university to start some kind of income-based affirmative action plan so that her non-affluent relatives get a leg up.”
That is absolutely not the case. (Besides, if I thought Stanford would hop to it and respond to my concerns about The Way Things Are before admissions decisions go out on April 1, I would be coming up with a much longer list of requests, believe you me!)
No. I’m thinking about the fact that fewer and fewer students with a socioeconomic background similar to mine have access to the kinds of opportunities I was given, never mind students who are facing more difficult financial circumstances than I ever did. I’m thinking of how much boldness it takes for a working-class kid or a lower-income kid or a kid from a family for whom college seems a luxury, to even apply to Stanford — especially when such students have to compete with those who, all other things being equal (and they never are), have an advantage because someone in their family went to school there first.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m so glad I got to go Stanford. The overwhelming majority of perfectly well-qualified and promising applicants are turned down every year, for no better reason than that there are too many people vying for too few spots. But the university gave me a shot, and I’m enormously grateful for it. I have been indebted for it too. I finished my undergrad work before 2008, so attending the university placed a significant financial burden on me and my family. I had tuition waivers and scholarships and grants, I did so many hours of work-study a week, I took out loans, my parents took out loans — and the education was worth the cost, not because of the lucrative career choices it opened up to me as an English major now studying U.S. intellectual history, but because of the rich reservoir of knowledge and wisdom that it made available to me. In the idea of the University with a capital U, I found something of enduring value — something I care so much about that I will do what I can to keep it alive and to pass it along. Being at Stanford fed my soul. I would not trade that for anything, and I would wish the same enriching experience for every student heading off to college in America.
But most students heading off to college this year, whether they are the first in their families to go to school or the latest in a long line of college-educated forebears, will take on a great deal of debt for very little enrichment. College students, even the inveterate humanists, can’t afford to look for wisdom or explore important questions; they have to look for “transferrable skills” and “marketable majors.” It seems to me that wisdom ought to be prized as the ultimate transferrable skill in any job market. And maybe that’s what lies behind the Yahoo! CEO’s proposal: let’s hire students only from those schools that have provided them with the luxury to take risks with their education. So at the very least, Stanford should change its admissions policy in order to deliberately and consistently extend this risk-taking opportunity to more students from less advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. Sure, pass down the legacy, but broaden it as you go.
Stanford could make such a bold move because it sits at the pinnacle of the prestige economy of higher education, which is also — not coincidentally — the pinnacle of financial clout in higher education. Meanwhile, the public university system of California, once the pride of the nation and the envy of the world, is falling into ruin. One California state legislator wants to propose a bill requiring the state’s public college campuses to grant credit for MOOC coursework offered by third-party / for-profit companies — companies started and staffed by some of those creative, innovative thinkers with Ivy-league connections.
This brings me to my second request…
I would like Stanford to take a principled stand against this widening resource gap between public and private universities, a gap that has become an almost unbridgeable chasm further entrenching a two-tier class system in American higher education. That’s right: I want Stanford to challenge the increasingly unjust structure of the very prestige economy which it commands. If MOOCs that include no in-class instructional time would not count for credit at Stanford University or Harvard University, why should they count at Cal State Stanislaus or U. Mass. or Texas Tech? Stanford and Harvard should be the first institutions to raise such questions.
There is, alas, a ready-made cynical answer: the more devalued a public university education becomes, the more valuable an elite private university education will be. But how much “added value” is enough? With all their prestige, with all their pull, are America’s finest private universities really going to put their institutional weight behind corporations whose business plans are designed to further dilute the quality of education at America’s public institutions of higher learning? Students in the state of California do not need MOOCs; they need smaller class sizes and more instructors. Stanford University — not just the experts in the School of Education, but the Board of Trustees — needs to speak up and say so. For the working-class, for minorities, for students from groups who are disproportionately poor and educationally disadvantaged, and, increasingly, for the middle-class as well, what is at stake here is not just the quality of the college experience; what is at stake is the very ability to earn a living wage in a merciless market that will sharply discount degrees from institutions dependent on overenrolled online courses to meet the basic instructional needs of their students. That’s no way to beat Cal.
So I want Stanford and its sister institutions — Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, and any other place that prides itself on the door-opening prestige of its diplomas — to stop being complicit in the dismantling of the post-war project of increased access to a first-rate education for all Americans. Stanford and its peer institutions need to push back, and push back hard, against the private plundering and public de-funding of the American mind.
I’m not asking for much, really.
I just want Stanford University — that university whose initial wealth was built upon the backs of immigrant laborers blasting rock and laying tracks through the mountain passes of the golden west, that university whose name opens doors that other names can’t open, that university whose students have freedom to grow as people without fearing that their degrees will be looked at as glorified correspondence-school diplomas because they had to take required classes online and study even advanced coursework from adjunct lecturers too overworked and underpaid to contribute to the research project of the academy — I want that university, my university, treasure of my heart, mentor of my mind, mother of my soul, to make a stand athwart the tracks of this runaway train-wreck of higher education in America, and shout “Stop!”
Don’t be a robber baron; be a bull moose.
Well, that’s it. I think I may have just used up all my legacy credits.