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Editorial: Educational Privilege; Rich Colleges Are Getting Richer

On the eve of the inauguration of Phil Hanlon as Dartmouth’s new president, the college hosted a panel discussion on the topic “The Liberal Arts at Dartmouth: What Lies Ahead?”

The answer seemed to be “Mostly More of the Same.” As staff writer Alex Hanson reported last Tuesday, the panelists by and large reaffirmed the value of a traditional liberal arts education, pursued in a residential setting, even in an era of rapidly spiraling costs and technological innovations such as MOOCs, or massive open online courses.

That’s as it should be. The Dartmouth model — stressing the quality of undergraduate teaching — is highly successful; only a fool would mess with it lightly. And the argument that a rigorous liberal arts education is the best preparation for living a productive and engaged life still carries force, even in an age preoccupied with vocational credentials.

Of course, Dartmouth and other elite universities have access to sufficient resources to cushion themselves from the currents that beset the liberal arts more broadly. Harvard, for instance, last week announced that its endowment posted an 11.3 percent gain on its investments for the fiscal year that ended June 30, ending the year with $32.7 billion in assets. That dwarfs Dartmouth’s endowment, which stood at $3.7 billion as of June 30, having earned a return of 12.1 percent for the year. But no one would say that Dartmouth isn’t fabulously wealthy in its own right.

And there is evidence that among colleges, as among individuals, the rich are getting richer. The same day that Hanson’s story appeared, Bloomberg News reported that there have been 16 gifts of $50 million or more made to colleges so far this year, twice as many as for all of last year. Experts said this was attributable to the performance of the U.S. stock market and growing confidence among donors that economic conditions are improving. Harvard must certainly think so: It recently launched a capital campaign that seeks to raise $6.5 billion by 2018, the largest in the history of higher education.

It strikes us that while any number of experts have concluded that the current funding model of college education is unsustainable because of soaring tuition costs, it is in fact highly sustainable for a small group of elite institutions. In this regard, past may be prologue. With income inequality increasing sharply in the United States, the country may be returning to the days when these select colleges were largely the preserve of children of wealth.

Since there will always be a sufficient number of highly qualified applicants from wealthy families to fill the available slots in entering classes and the institutions’ financial resources will allow them to recruit among economically disadvantaged groups, the future could be one where middle class families no longer think about sending their children to Ivy League institutions, or the equivalent. As Hanson noted, James O. Freedman, then Dartmouth’s president, said in the 1990s, “I can’t believe the middle class will allow itself to be priced out of education.” As things have transpired, the middle class has had little choice in the matter, and higher education, including liberal arts, is impoverished as a result.