Trustees | Costs

Learning the true price of college


In 1991, journalist Jonathan Kozol shocked the nation’s conscience with his best-selling book “Savage Inequalities,” which detailed how public schools that educate the affluent typically receive far more money, and spend far more per-pupil, than those that educate the poor. Because property taxes play such an outsized role in financing America’s K-12 education system, students in upscale suburbs enjoy small classes, veteran teachers, and luxuriant athletic fields. Those in working class and poor neighborhoods live with leaky school roofs, old textbooks, and overcrowded classrooms led by poorly paid newbie teachers.

Kozol’s book spurred lawsuits and bitter legislative fights over efforts to equalize K-12 funding. And while these disparities remain, no one — at least no liberal — doubts their injustice. Indeed, several of the Democrats running for president have put out plans to ameliorate the problem.

Yet America’s institutions of higher education have largely escaped such scrutiny. Few people express outrage at the considerable funding disparities that exist between colleges that cater to affluent students and those that serve lower-income students. Quite the opposite. To help their children choose a college, many liberal parents rely on US News & World Reports’ annual college rankings, which gives extra points to schools that spend more per pupil, and penalizes those with fewer resources.

In fact, concern about college funding disparities is so low that no one has bothered to fully document them. To that end, we used a database compiled by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, drawing on data from the Department of Education, to compare per-student spending at the most selective 208 colleges and universities in America (which disproportionately enroll affluent students), with other four-year schools. We found that between 2010 and 2016, the most selective colleges spent well over twice as much on instruction and administration per student per year than the less selective institutions. As a result, non-wealthy students who need additional resources the most are getting them the least.

In a democratic society that believes in equal opportunity, disparities this large shouldn’t be tolerated. There are two ways to deal with this gap. First, selective colleges and universities should be pressured to let in more students of modest means and to do well by those students. To that end, the Washington Monthly recently published a one-of-a-kind ranking of colleges we call our “Affordable Elite” list. We took the 208 most selective colleges according to Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges and ranked them based on a combination of metrics, including the number of non-rich students each school admitted and graduated, the net price they charged, how much those students earn in the job market, and how quickly they pay back their loans.

Near the bottom of our list are a number of well-known schools, like Bard and Baylor, that graduate relatively few low-income students while charging them a boatload. (The net price for a year at Baylor for students from families earning $75,000 or less is $28,484).

At the top are schools that do an exemplary job graduating moderate and low-income students with degrees that matter in the marketplace. Harvard and Stanford make the top ten, but the number one school on our affordable elite list is CUNY Baruch College. Baruch is no one’s idea of a prestige school, but it’s an academically distinguished one that serves its predominantly first-generation students well, with a net price of $4,000 per year for students from families earning $75,000 or less. Institutions like Baruch and the number two school on our list, the University of California-Davis, show that it’s possible for a college to be academically selective without being economically exclusive.

The second step we need to take is to reduce the spending disparities in higher education, especially among state schools, where the differences are just as stark. Per-student spending at public research universities, which tend to cater to affluent white students, is more than twice as high as at community colleges, which disproportionately enroll low-income and minority students. Ameliorating this problem should be easier in higher education than in K-12, because the former relies more on direct state revenues, which can be changed with a vote, than it does on taxes on property, whose value is inherently unequal.

A good start would be for alumni from under-resourced colleges to start suing their states for more funding, as a group of historically black colleges in Maryland have done. But before such efforts are likely to happen, we have to realize we have a problem in the first place.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

Discover More