James Bacon writes for the Martin Center about a perceived problem involving higher education and its promotion of economic mobility.

Virginia’s top public universities are largely stratified by socioeconomic status. Consider the following statistics that appear in the new book by James V. Koch and Richard J. Cebula, Runaway College Costs: How College Governing Boards Fail to Protect their Students.

  • At the College of William & Mary only 13.6 percent of the student body comes from families in the bottom 60 percent of the income distribution. (Only 1.5 percent comes from the lowest income quintile.)
  • At the University of Mary Washington only 15 percent comes from the bottom 60 percent.
  • At the University of Virginia only 15 percent comes from the bottom 60 percent.
  • At James Madison University, only 16 percent comes from the bottom 60 percent.

Those numbers compare to an average of 47 percent from the bottom three quintiles for all public four-year institutions nationally.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It depends upon your perspective. It is widely acknowledged that academic achievement is highly correlated with socioeconomic and educational status. Parents in higher socio-economic brackets expose their children to more spoken vocabulary, emphasize reading at an earlier age, send their children to better schools, and set higher expectations for academic achievement. From one perspective it is understandable that these children would be more likely to be admitted to elite academic institutions.

But there is a growing body of thought that colleges and universities should aim to foster upward economic mobility. In this regard, individual Virginia institutions fall far short. This perspective appears to be that of Koch and Cebula. …

… Where I would agree with Koch and Cebula, however, is that elite institutions (on average) have increased their tuition, fees, and other costs more aggressively than other institutions simply because they can. Their brand names give them the market power to do so. As a consequence, even adjusting for financial aid, the higher costs create an obstacle for lower-income students who otherwise might qualify to attend. For that, governing boards should be called to account.