Until this year, Stanford’s tuition-assistance program waived tuition contributions from parents making less than $100,000 a year. A waiver for both tuition and room and board went to families making less than $60,000 (the threshold has since been expanded to $65,000). As Karen Cooper, the associate dean and director of financial aid at Stanford, put it, "this expansion of the financial aid program is a demonstration of Stanford's commitment to access for outstanding students from all backgrounds."
The movement to increase economic diversity at colleges has gained so much momentum in recent years that it now even comes with a prize. This week, Vassar College won the inaugural Jack Cooke Kent Prize for Economic Equity for its success in significantly increasing the number of students it admits who receive Pell Grants, which are typically granted to students whose household incomes are under $30,000. The New York Times' David Leonhardt reported that a recent The Times analysis of "The Most Economically Diverse Top Colleges" influenced the contest’s selection of Vassar, which topped the newspaper’s list, too.
Stanford came in at No. 18 on the list. If this is 18, however, what would No. 50 or No. 100 look like? To put it simply, Stanford does not look like the rest of America—not when it comes to income. Like other elite schools on the The Times' list, it is more economically diverse than it was a decade ago, but it is hardly as diverse as it could or should be. According to Lisa Lapin, a spokeswoman at Stanford, approximately 30 percent of its undergraduates in recent years have benefitted from the under-$100,000 policy, and within that 30 percent are the roughly 18 percent of students who have received additional waivers for room-and-board fees.
While Stanford is understandably proud of these numbers, I cannot help but notice the cloud attached to their silver lining: the flip side of that 30 percent. In other words, 70 percent of Stanford undergraduates come from families whose incomes are over $100,000, even though only a little more than 20 percent of Americans made that much in 2010, according to census data. Worse yet, less than 18 percent of the students have family incomes under $60,000, even though more than half of Americans did in 2013. According to Lapin, between 20 percent and 25 percent of Stanford families pay full tuition, room, and board—fees that this year add up to $58,388 at sticker price. That means that there are more students who pay full freight at Stanford than there are students from households earning less than roughly that same amount.
What accounts for the discrepancy between the number of rich and poor students at Stanford and other elite schools? One reason, well reported by Leonhardt, is that elite schools have struggled to identify and recruit low-income students; indeed, a study he cites shows that selective schools do a poor job enrolling students from the bottom economic quartile. But it isn’t only the bottom that is being underrepresented: Lapin’s numbers suggest that Stanford’s undergraduates are overwhelmingly drawn from the top quartile.