Stanford University yesterday became the latest elite university to dramatically expand middle-class financial aid, granting free tuition to families with incomes less than $100,000 per year (and free room and board to those below $60,000). No question, it's an important move that should be applauded. But it's worth bearing in mind what Andrew Delbanco wrote in The New York Review of Books last March:
[A]s a matter of practice, "need-blind" is a slogan that does not mean much except in relation to the needs of the applicant pool. If most applicants come from places like Greenwich or Grosse Point, a college can be "need-blind" without having to dispense much aid.
Delbanco's review is worth reading in full. The basic point is this: It's true that admission to elite universities is systematically biased toward the wealthy. This can be rectified, in part, by doing things like expanding financial aid and class-based affirmative action, awarding fewer golf and lacrosse scholarships, and supporting innovative outreach and recruiting programs. But those aren't the main reasons why elite universities are becoming the exclusive province of the rich and upper middle class (about three-quarters of undergrads at Harvard come from families making more than $100,000 per year). As Delbanco put it, "If applicants to top colleges were admitted on the basis of grades and tests alone, this would simply ensure that they come overwhelmingly from prosperous families."
The root of the problem is that admission to elite universities (at least, when one takes "elite" to refer to a fixed number of long-established schools) is a textbook example of a zero-sum, positional good: There are only so many places available, regardless of how many qualified applicants there are. And as income inequality has grown (and as the size of the nation's population, relative to the size of elite-school student bodies, has increased), there has developed a critical mass of talented students from well-off families applying to elite universities. Realistically, the only thing that might reverse this trend is what Jerome Karabel proposes: "a fundamental re-examination of the very meaning of 'merit' ", accompanied by quotas for poorer students and even a lottery of some fraction of spots at elite universities.
That will probably strike most people (as it does me) as a creepy and utopian form of social engineering, probably far worse than the problem motivating it. The ideal solution would be to make college education as much of a non-positional good as possible, by strengthening the academic programs at second-tier schools. In the meantime, though, while Stanford and other elite universities deserve credit for expanding financial aid, one shouldn't overestimate the impact such moves are likely to have.