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To reduce inequality, abolish Ivy League

Glenn Reynolds

By Glenn Reynolds

Published Nov. 3, 2015

To reduce inequality, abolish Ivy League

The problem of "inequality" looms over America like a storm cloud. According to our political and journalistic class, inequality is the single biggest problem facing our nation, with the possible exception of climate change. It is a desperate problem demanding sweeping solutions. President Obama calls it the "defining challenge of our time." Hillary Clinton says we're living in a throwback to the elitist age of "robber barons." Bernie Sanders says inequality is the result of a "rigged economy" that favors those at the top while holding down those at the bottom.

In that spirit, I have a modest proposal: Abolish the Ivy League. Because if you're worried about inequality among Americans, I can think of no single institution that does more to contribute to the problem.

As former Labor secretary Robert Reich recently noted, Ivy League schools are government-subsidized playgrounds for the rich: "Imagine a system of college education supported by high and growing government spending on elite private universities that mainly educate children of the wealthy and upper-middle class, and low and declining government spending on public universities that educate large numbers of children from the working class and the poor.

"You can stop imagining," Reich wrote. "That's the American system right now. ... Private university endowments are now around $550 billion, centered in a handful of prestigious institutions. Harvard's endowment is over $32 billion, followed by Yale at $20.8 billion, Stanford at $18.6 billion, and Princeton at $18.2 billion. Each of these endowments increased last year by more than $1 billion, and these universities are actively seeking additional support. Last year, Harvard launched a capital campaign for another $6.5 billion. Because of the charitable tax deduction, the amount of government subsidy to these institutions in the form of tax deductions is about one out of every $3 contributed."

The result? "The annual government subsidy to Princeton University, for example, is about $54,000 per student, according to an estimate by economist Richard Vedder," Reich pointed out. "Other elite privates aren't far behind. Public universities, by contrast, have little or no endowment income. They get almost all their funding from state governments. But these subsidies have been shrinking."

Nor does all this money go to enhance opportunities for the non-elites. Ivy League admissions are mostly tilted toward the upper-middle class and the wealthy. As Ross Douthat wrote in The New York Times, there is "a truth that everyone who's come up through Ivy League culture knows intuitively — that elite universities are about connecting more than learning, that the social world matters far more than the classroom to undergraduates, and that rather than an escalator elevating the best and brightest from every walk of life, the meritocracy as we know it mostly works to perpetuate the existing upper class."

Nor does the problem end there. Once you're out of college, your chances of making it to the top are much, much greater if you're an Ivy League graduate. Take the Obama administration. A National Journal survey of 250 top decision-makers found that 40% of them were Ivy League graduates. Only a quarter had earned graduate degrees from a public university. In fact, more Obama administration officials had degrees from England's Oxford University than from any American public university. Worse yet, more than 60 of them — roughly a fourth — had attended a single Ivy League school, Harvard.

A look at race, justice, media

If all of this were making America a better place, maybe the elitism would be justified. But a quick survey of the headlines suggests that while we might be governed by the best credentialed, we're not being governed by the brightest and most competent.

What is to be done? Well, in the name of ending inequality, I have a few modest proposals.

  1. We should eliminate the tax deductibility of contributions to schools having endowments in excess of $1 billion. At some point, as our president has said, you've made enough money. That won't end all major donations to the Ivy League, but it will doubtless encourage donors to look at less wealthy and more deserving schools, such as Northern Kentucky University, recently deemed "more inspirational than Harvard" in the London Times Higher Education magazine.
  2. We should require that all schools with endowments over $1 billion spend at least 10% of their endowment annually on student financial aid. That will make it easier for less wealthy students to attend elite institutions.
  3. We should require that university admissions be based strictly on objective criteria such as grades and SAT/ACT scores, with random drawings used to cull the herd further if necessary. That will eliminate the Ivy League's documented discrimination against Asians.

These are strong measures, which might not actually end the Ivy League, but which would certainly end the Ivy League as we know it, and I can imagine many elite university administrators objecting. Even so, if inequality is as serious a problem in America as our leaders say it is, strong medicine is called for. Let's take these important steps now. For equality!

Previously:
10/12/15 Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids. Or is it?
09/28/15 Ignore Trump if you want. But don't deny the lessons of other parts of the world facing an immigration crisis
08/21/15 Fast moving bad news builds prosperity
08/14/15 Trump indicts America's ruling class
08/07/15 Politicos put past before progress
07/15/15 When party outsiders feel ignored, a champion appears to take their interests to heart --- or at least sounds as if he does
07/08/15 Are happier lawyers, cheaper legal fees on the horizon?

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Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor, is the author of The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself and is a columnist at USA TODAY.

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