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November 10, 2003

Dividing Up the Education Goodies

The debate on affirmative action in education is odd. What exactly is being fought over?

If someone doesn't get into one school, there are always other schools to get into. So why stress so much over the shuffling of students between different schools, due to affirmative action or its abscence?

Well, here's one reason-- Rich Colleges Receiving Richest Share of U.S. Aid.

So here's the deal-- the most prestigious schools get more tax dollars per student. For example, Brown, got $169.23 for every student who merely applied for its Perkins financial aid program, while the national average is only $14.38 per student. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of research subsidies and other government spending that goes overwhelmingly to such elite schools.

So the US systematically subsidizes the richest schools which generally have the most elite students from families generally already having the highest incomes. Add in the private endowments funding students at the elite campuses and you understand the scramble to get it.

Now, some of that money subsidizes the handful poorest students who manage to get in, something badly needed given the costs of those elite schools.

But that doesn't help students who don't make it in.

So everyone scrambles to get into the handful of heavily subsidized schools that serve "top ranked" students, while desperately avoiding the underfunded schools serving "low ranked students."

Look at this chart showing total average spending per university student in the United States versus other countries. The US ranks at the top of that list, but what is shocking is the average amount of $19,802 per student.

That's a lot of cash per student.

But the reality is that this "average" disguises a system of US higher education where massive resources go to elite schools, while lower-ranked schools are often horribly underfunded.

So we have the bizarre system of driving most of our funding towards a small number of schools. So when students (and their parents) fight over entrance to the best schools, they aren't just fighting over prestige-- they are fighting to get the funding going to those elite schools.

Our whole society is geared to give massive financial affirmative action to those who make it into those top schools. And those schools are already overwhelmingly white.

So let's be clear-- we start the education debate with massive racism in how we allocate funding on higher education. It's also of course horribly discriminatory against poor white students as well.

So we have a system where elite whites are massively subsidized by society, and they get to watch poorer whites and blacks pitted against each other to try to scramble into a few slots at those elite schools.

I am firmly for affirmative action, but I think it might be worth trading it in for a conservative idea - real vouchers for higher education. Hand every student that $19,802 per student in grants each year-- that would buy such better resources for students at the bottom, including the mass of black and latino students at the bottom, that it would be worth trading off the tiny number of slots handed out in the affirmative action lottery.

Of course, conservatives would never fund vouchers at a real level-- their voucher rhetoric always stops when it would mean allocating real dollars to fund education at any level. Just look at their hostility to Pell Grants, the best example of education vouchers that exist.

But the fact that they would never trade off the abolition of affirmative action for a real voucher system in higher education just reflects the real racist inequalities in our funding of colleges and universiites.

For more, read
The American Middle Class and The Politics of Education

Posted by Nathan at November 10, 2003 12:27 AM