The Disuse of “Pursuit of Excellence”

For decades, higher education, especially that of top-ranked private universities, has been seen as the ladder to future opportunities and social mobility. World-class professors and high-tech laboratories are advertised; college pamphlets display students attending plays on Broadway, performing research, and participating in a wide variety of extracurricular activities, all in one day. To be certain, elite institutions have a host of resources with which students can engage; however, these resources, despite their existence, may not necessarily be equally accessible. While previous arguments about social mobility at elite institutions have focused on increased matriculation of lower-income students, another important aspect to peruse is what becomes of these students after they matriculate and step foot on campus.

There is no doubt that universities have expanded resources to better serve students from lower-income backgrounds. For instance, Ivy League universities have vastly improved their financial aid packages, often offering free tuition to students coming from households below a certain income threshold ranging from $40k to $50k, as well as grants, rather than loans. They also provide summer programs for students to adjust to the academic rigor of college. As a result, they have seen numbers of students who are the first in their family to attend college rise. And yet, critics continue to argue that colleges should employ greater financial aid or expend their complete endowments on lower-income students. As much as it is important to consider these students’ entry into colleges, these arguments advocating for education as a means of social mobility overlook the success of students already attending these colleges.

One of the greatest challenges facing these students is the process of socialization. College is inherently a social experience, as it is academic. However, when students are on a full ride from financial aid, it’s often the case that their time spent at an elite private institution detracts from time spent closer to home, working to bring additional income into the household. A resolution, then, is to find jobs on campus. In doing so, their time towards participation in clubs, activities, or other social groups is limited. There exists explicit financial inability to participate in social activities too; fraternities, sororities, and spring break trips all have a price tag attached. These challenges contribute to a growing divide between the lower income population and higher income populations within colleges.

Of course, this argument may assume that colleges exist purely for social capital. Certainly, this isn’t true for all colleges; they serve as institutions of education too. However, for elite colleges, this argument remains at least partially true. The resources of the Ivy League or comparably elite colleges are excellent, but the advantage of attending these schools lies in the wealth of social connections to be made. A research study investigating the relationship between income status and marriage rates illustrates this factor. Ivies had a divide ranging from 12 to 22 percent difference, with higher income students having higher marriage rates than lower income students. On one hand, marriage implies economic stability, but it also seems to reveal that higher income students are often marrying each other, likely through the social institutions in college. Though limitations on this research exist, it appears that though lower income students are not inept in socializing, they have trouble finding the time and places to do so.

Beyond this argument on socialization, majors and jobs factor into social mobility for college students. Many lower to middle income students major in engineering or finance-track based studies to achieve stable employment post-graduation, overlooking greater interest in lesser-earning majors in the humanities. In other words, elite institutions have extensive resources to explore the humanities, but these are left unused. What, then, is the point of attending an elite institution as a vessel of interdisciplinary or liberal-arts based learning if our intentions are limited to a pre-professional outlook? Does attending a public university not prepare us for the same result?

Rather than argue over how to increase numbers of lower income students, the greater question at hand is how these students can thrive in the environments of elite institutions. The heavy emphasis on mobility brings into question the purpose of colleges: to either provide students with superior education or to propel them into better economic status. Surely, can’t we accomplish both?

*The Ivy League and comparably elite institutions (Stanford, MIT, and etc.)