Last year as a news writer for The Hoya, I covered the New York Times’ first annual ranking of socioeconomic diversity on college campuses. This year, Georgetown plummeted in the rankings from 46 to 88. While reading The Hoya’s coverage of the drop, I noticed the same line touted that I had encountered when I interviewed administrators last year: Georgetown is doing everything it can with a small endowment, and, despite the numbers, truly is committed to serving low-income students.
Perhaps this is true, in the context of elite private colleges. Schools like Harvard University, Stanford University, or Wellesley College with huge endowments ought to have stronger financial aid programs, and they do. How can schools with much smaller endowments like Georgetown compete? Georgetown seems to prioritize a quality educational experience for all its students over providing middle-value scholarships with no additional support.
The Georgetown Scholarship Program is an incredible program dedicated not just to financial support but to community and mentorship as well. The results are smaller numbers of middle- and low-income students. Georgetown does the best that it can while playing by the conventional rules of higher education in the United States.
However, in a larger context, the failure of Georgetown and schools like it to include middle- and low-income students is demonstrative of structural problems in the higher education system in the United States. It is not just that Georgetown is often inaccessible to certain socioeconomic demographics. College in general is something that the current national dialogue seems to forget. Discussions surrounding the issue continually fail to consider radical reform to rectify the problem of inequity in the American institutions of higher education.
College today is viewed as everything from a serious academic experience to an investment in a future career to a place to “find yourself.” As enrollment in four-year institutions has risen steadily over the past decade, the college experience has become a selling point. Wealthy families and students employ SAT tutors and college essay-writing workshops and use a wide variety of extracurricular activities to get into their top-choice schools for prestige and opportunity, but also for the best total experience. Students pour over college rankings and “The Princeton Review” books in the hopes of knowing which college is really right for them. The resources used in the college race alone are inaccessible to lower-income students who hope to go to an elite college. But, they also set up universities as businesses selling an experience to American elites rather than places of learning and advancement for all willing students.
When families invest so much in their children’s college education, they then expect the best: flashy new academic buildings and dorms plus a staff of administrators for any and all student needs. In an article published by The Atlantic in May 2013, author Josh Freedman referred to this phenomena as an “amenities arms race,” where schools are incentivized to spend on buildings and administration rather than increase instructional quality or finance strong aid programs. Freedman writes, “Outside of the handful of super-elite universities with fortress endowments, colleges’ finances are currently designed around enrolling a disproportionately high number of high-income students. These schools could not afford to support more low-income or middle-income students absent either a huge increase in tuition, a commensurate reduction in spending, or a dramatic change in public funding.”
Georgetown certainly plays into this paradigm. Its endowment does hinder its ability to finance low-income students, but its focus on multiple new construction projects and intricate administrative bureaucracy also fit Freedman’s framework. Whether or not Georgetown is better or worse than its peers at increasing accessibility for middle- and low-income students, it could be doing a lot better. In order to improve socioeconomic diversity in higher education, universities across the board need to make it a top priority, not another amenity.
Laura Owsiany is a senior in the College. Missing Class appears every other Friday.
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