Wealthy colleges should just admit more students, one of their biggest critics says

Last week Higher Ed Dive published the first of a two-part conversation with Evan Mandery, author of the book “Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us.”

Mandary graduated from Harvard University. Today, he’s a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which is part of the City University of New York system. He’s become one of the leading critics of Ivy League and other super-wealthy universities.

Wealthy institutions, particularly those with endowments exceeding $1 billion, have a special obligation, he argues: “Actually do good.”

His broader case is that these institutions do more to keep rich people rich than to boost socioeconomic mobility or pursue any other greater good. All higher ed leaders may not agree with his stance. But at a time when the public sharply questions the value of higher education, and when trust in institutions of all types is plummeting, it’s worth understanding.

Here’s the remainder of the conversation.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

HIGHER ED DIVE: You don’t seem to think there’s a silver bullet that will solve all of your criticisms. But should Ivy League colleges simply admit more students?

Optional Caption

Permission granted by Evan Mandery


EVAN MANDERY: I think you’re right to start there. It’s the simplest, most politically tenable solution, and it’s the most conspicuous that it hasn’t happened.

Part of Harvard’s resistance to changing the status quo, or their indignant commitment to continuing affirmative action for rich Whites, is — they’re not going to say this, but it’s obvious — they don’t want to unsettle the relationships they have with Groton and Andover and Exeter and 50 club lacrosse programs.

But increasing the capacity would be a very easy way to maintain those relationships. It could be potentially transformative for communities. 

Imagine a Harvard Detroit. Are they really so worried it would damage their brand? I’m very, very dubious that it would.

How many students should they add?

Doubling capacity with an aim of dramatically increasing overall socioeconomic diversity feels to me like something they could do.

Would that make a difference? Well, it would make a difference for the 6,000 undergraduates — or 1,500 undergraduates per year — that they admitted.

There’s no single response to this. Every life matters. But, you know, collectively, let’s say 1,500 students per year, eight colleges. You’re talking 12,000 to 15,000 students per cohort, 150,000 over the course of a decade.

That feels like a real difference to me. It ain’t nothing.

What would have to happen for such an expansion to be executed in a just way, in your eyes?

I’ve always focused on starting by ending unjust practices. So, obviously, legacy and preference for donors and alumni children is utterly indefensible. There is nobody who is not an administrator at one of these colleges who defends one of these practices.

You mention how many tax breaks these institutions receive. But something very interesting happened during the Trump administration: Republicans passed a tax on net investment income at colleges with large endowments.

Trump did a 1.4% excise tax. It was a rounding error for these colleges, and it was just punitive of elites who are the college-educated elites who obviously didn’t vote for him.

So the next Republican administration could just tax colleges with endowments over a certain level more highly. Then poor kids would have nothing to show for it, as they have nothing to show for what Trump did.

Or the left can say, “Hey, you’ve been getting a free pass for so long, here’s a list of goals you can commit yourself to. You need to show meaningful progress toward one or more of these in order to get this benefit.”

It’s going to come from the left or the right or both, and the question is whether or not the tax break is going to be leveraged to do some good for socioeconomically disadvantaged kids or whether it is just going to be punitive.

Your book references the money Michael Bloomberg gave to Johns Hopkins University, saying something to the effect of, “Imagine what a CUNY college could do with this.” 

I argue that Mike Bloomberg’s gift, like David Geffen building a new New York Philharmonic Hall, is generous and not just — especially in the case of Johns Hopkins, because it exacerbates the divide between the haves and have-nots.

It’s very hard for people to have a sense of big numbers. One thing I ask in the book is, what does it look like if Harvard increases its draw on its endowment [by a percentage point]? That’s an extra $500 million.

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