Opinion | Making education a public good

Opinion by Megha Parwani
March 7, 2021, 9:58 p.m.

During Family Weekend several days ago, Stanford leadership was again asked why tuition has remained unchanged despite the shift to remote learning. Provost Drell pointed to increased costs due to the pandemic, but she did not delineate what these costs are. She added that “the value of the Stanford degree is going to be undiminished when our students graduate.” While it’s unfortunate to see education framed as a transaction — lots of money for a degree — the response is candid. A Stanford degree is worth a good deal, even when attached to an experientially diminished education. This should make us wonder why more people cannot access it.

While the admissions office makes commendable efforts to increase access and inclusion, and the university provides significant financial aid to domestic students, Stanford still lags in promoting social mobility. In December 2019, the Education Reform Network released a report ranking the best “social mobility elevators” among colleges in the United States. Stanford fell toward the bottom half of the list, ranking 216th. In an interview with The Daily, the report’s author, James Murphy, said that despite its ranking, “places like Stanford are incredibly good at propelling students from the bottom of the income spectrum in America to the top. The problem is that not nearly enough low-income students are getting that opportunity.”

As they are now, selective universities choose exclusivity at the expense of equity. Daniel Markovitz, legal scholar and author of “The Meritocracy Trap,” has maintained that elite universities largely cater to families in the highest income brackets, thereby becoming means to perpetuate privilege rather than promote social mobility in the United States. Markovitz highlights vast differences in student representation across income brackets at selective universities. These patterns track at Stanford as well. According to 2014 data from The New York Times, Stanford has about four times as many students with family incomes in the top 1% than the bottom 20% of the income distribution in the United States.

This inequality does not stem from an inherent lack of ability on the part of low-income students, despite what the American myth of meritocracy would like us to believe, but is driven by social and economic barriers to access throughout the college admissions process — carrying over from a deeply inequitable K-12 education system. We can see this in, for example, how students from wealthier backgrounds get significantly higher scores on the SAT than those from poorer backgrounds do, especially at the tail ends of the income distribution. Even “holistic” admissions criteria are influenced by socioeconomic background. Students who do not have to work part-time to support their families, take care of elders and siblings and perform chores can more easily participate in (and lead) dozens of extracurricular activities, volunteer and focus on demonstrating non-academic “soft skills.” When application essays ask about someone’s favorite works of art or cultural events, students who have gone on more holidays abroad, engaged in academic conversation at home and taken trips to museums are at an advantage. Add to this legacy-based admission and other ambiguously-defined metrics that seem to favor wealthy and white applicants, and it becomes clear that we have an unmeritocratic, even aristocratic, system at hand. This system became the subject of national conversation almost exactly two years ago when the college admissions scandal broke across the country, including on Stanford’s campus, leading many to question who the present system rewards with a Stanford degree, for what reasons and at what cost.

What makes social mobility rankings at selective universities even more dismal is that wealthy students would do alright without this education. A 2011 analysis found that the value-add of a top university degree is inversely related to socioeconomic status, indicating many graduates of high socioeconomic status would enjoy high levels of career success without attending a top college. There is reason to think that the value of a Stanford degree might be less decisive in some contexts than others, namely in contexts of preexisting economic and social capital.

During the pandemic, it becomes imperative to think about how higher education can be reformed. Throughout the country, students are opting out of higher education because the price, including massive student debt, is too high to pay, even as the employment gap between degree-holders and non-degree-holders grows wider. Taking a broader view, the pandemic’s disruption of K-12 education has left certain students behind, and there is reason to think this disruption will resonate in higher education admissions for years to come. With this in mind, reform seems as urgent as ever.

Admittedly, it would be hubristic to think that top universities alone can mitigate inequities in higher education, and it is naive to think their business model, especially when research is a priority and donations come with conditions attached, will allow for this. As such, major, perhaps primary, priorities should be investing in public institutions that better facilitate social mobility, changing the elitist focus of educational philanthropy and mitigating the student debt crisis. These reforms will probably affect more students than anything Stanford and peer institutions can logistically do and, realistically, are willing to do. But for now, given our positionality, it makes sense to think of how our institution, a wealthy and private institution, can strive toward egalitarian justice. 

First, Stanford can increase its class size so it no longer privileges exclusivity over equity. Each year the university admits a tiny fraction of deserving high school students. Today somewhere near one in 20 applicants are admitted. This fraction falls lower each year, with the understandable exception of 2020, since applications grow but class-size remains stagnant. Applicants who are turned away are often abundantly qualified. Noticing this same trend in 2007, former university president John Hennessey advocated expanding the first-year class — or at least starting a conversation about it. Expanding the class would both “create more opportunities for gifted students to attend Stanford and it would avail Stanford of some of the best and brightest minds in the country,” as Hennessey writes. These same considerations also motivate expanding non-traditional and transfer student admissions.

Of course, Stanford was not experiencing a global pandemic in 2007. As such, feasibility constraints on increasing the class size — like housing students and ensuring a high-quality academic experience for all — are greater than before. For starters, the university’s finances have taken a hit due to the pandemic, with hiring freezes and limits on departmental spending in place, to the point that the university has tapped into the endowment, as it very rarely does. In addition, there is a valid case for focusing on supporting students at the current class size, for example by adjusting financial aid to account for new economic hardships brought about by the pandemic, better supporting disadvantaged students once they arrive on campus or instating need-blind admissions for international students.

But we can still grow Stanford through digital means, if not physical ones, in a cost-efficient way. Even if we are fatigued with Zoom classes now, they show an unparalleled potential to bring more people into the fold of a robust liberal arts education. As much as I enjoy a cozy philosophy seminar, the value of massive online courses teaching core skills to non-traditional students — as CS106A Code in Place evinced during the pandemic — is undeniable. Further investment in an accessible online instruction infrastructure could ensure a liberal arts education is treated less like a luxury and more like a public good, hopefully, both in terms of availability and price. 

In addition, our university can help build stronger pipelines for deserving students from disadvantaged backgrounds to attend Stanford. While the admissions office already focuses on outreach to high schools serving these students, there is recent innovation worth considering. A few weeks ago, The New York Times profiled a program that enrolls hundreds of students from high-poverty schools in online classes at selective universities. Students have done well in these classes, not only earning college credit but also developing the confidence to apply to selective schools at which they can thrive. In addition, the college transcripts and recommendations they come away with can bolster their college applications. This initiative is run by a non-profit, the National Education Equity Lab. According to Equity Labs’ founder, it aims for “reimagining and expanding the roles and responsibilities of universities,” so it courts great students from low-income backgrounds “with the same enthusiasm and success with which they identify top athletes.” The non-profit has partnered with a number of undergraduate institutions, and Stanford should become a partner, thereby actively building opportunities for students to not only know about but feel equipped to apply here.

Finally, as individual students and beneficiaries of exceptional education, we could engage more with college admissions mentorship programs. Stanford already has chapters of excellent mentorship programs, such as the Phoenix Scholars Program and Matriculate. These chapters train university students to provide admissions advice and support to high school students, from navigating financial aid to reading essays to, just as importantly, encouraging ambition in college applications. Stanford professor Caroline Hoxby’s research has shown that high-achieving low-income students tend not to apply to selective colleges, despite being likely to get in with financial aid so generous that they would pay less than they do at the schools they usually attend. Peer mentorship is a grassroots means to address this challenge and represents a unique opportunity for Stanford students to use our skills at getting into college to affect more than our own lives.

Right now, many of us are stepping back and reflecting on the value of our education as we experience it in an entirely new way. As we do so, it is also worth assessing the values this education struggles to embody, such that we can better orient it to equity and justice.

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Megha Parwani '22 was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volumes 258 and 259. She designed Frankly Speaking, a crowd-sourced opinion column, and served on the Editorial Board for Volumes 259, 258, and 256. She is double majoring in Philosophy and Political Science. Contact her at mparwani 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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