as if it’s not enough to have a gaping chasm between students who can pay full tuition and those who go into debt to attend college, a report from Moody’s underscores the “balance sheet advantage” held by wealthy colleges and universities as well. The difference between mega-endowment institutions and the rest of us magnifies the disparity for students who attend the nation’s wealthiest (and frequently most expensive) institutions and those who don’t.
Moody’s, which rates institutions for their financial viability, shows that of 500 universities surveyed, 40 of them hold more than two-thirds of the wealth. These top 40 schools, with Harvard, Yale, Duke and Stanford in the lead, have a median $6.3 billion in cash and endowments. Harvard holds a dizzying $43 billion in cash and endowments, $10 billion more than any other.
The rest of the 500 clock in around $250 million each—just 4 percent of what the top 40 hold.
Even though some of those at the top do help low-income students with scholarships, Inside Higher Education reports that the wealthiest institutions enroll relatively few of them. Nationally, 36 percent of undergraduates are low-income (identified by the fact they receive Pell Grants); the number drops to 16 percent among the 10 wealthiest colleges.
Mirella Medina Burton, counseling faculty at Evergreen Valley College in San Jose, Calif., and a division representative for AFT Local 6157, says she encourages her low-income transfer students to attend wealthier institutions, where better resources can mean more financial aid. But when she takes them on college visits, many say the elite schools don’t “feel right.” The schools, she says, “are not doing enough to recruit them or even give them a fair shot.”
She keeps trying, though, and describes one student who used his GED to enroll in community college, then transferred to a small, well-resourced private school. Classes were small enough that faculty would notice any absence and reach out to keep him enrolled. There was a resource center for low-income transfer students, and he didn’t get lost in the crowd. Because of that college experience, says Burton, “his life changed. His future changed.”
As a first-generation student herself, whose parents have a third-grade education, she understands how important supportive resources can be. “If it wasn’t for the Educational Opportunity Program and my Latina sorority, I wouldn’t have made it,” she says. But she did graduate and went on to earn her Ph.D.
Now she is working to ensure other students have the same resources she had—and wishing those resources were more evenly distributed.