A Conservative Answer to Campus Inequality

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Hundreds of high school students across the country will check their mailboxes this week to find a small, white envelope containing notice of their acceptance to Georgetown University. Yet, for many low and middle-income potential Hoyas, a mere “congratulations” is not enough to confirm a future at Georgetown. Despite Georgetown’s commitment to need-blind admissions and to fully meeting demonstrated need, only 7.1% of Georgetown students come from families in the bottom 40% of the income distribution.

This figure should be concerning to all Hoyas—both Democrats and Republicans. Conservatives often argue that institutions should be designed to enforce equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes. In the case of education, however, inequality leads to a lack of opportunity and to stilted social mobility.

Private universities, in general, are not known for a high degree of economic diversity; however, even within this category, Georgetown performs rather poorly. In comparison, other elite institutions enroll a greater proportion of low and middle-income students. 15.9% of Emory students are from the bottom 40% of the income distribution, 13.8% of Vassar students and 12.5% of Wellesley students. The College Access Index, compiled by the New York Times, ranks Georgetown 88th out of 179 on their list of “Top Colleges Doing the Most for Low Income Students.”

This lack of socioeconomic diversity limits students’ experience at Georgetown, leading to less diversity of thought in the classroom and in social settings. It means that the Georgetown community is missing out on a whole demographic of smart, high-achieving, low-income students who have overcome especially difficult circumstances.

Even if the issue of socioeconomic diversity is not a decidedly political problem, the proposed solutions are fraught with political questions. Traditionally, Georgetown has approached the inequality problem by increasing tuition to expand the financial aid program. This year’s budget increased tuition by 4% with an accompanied investment in financial aid.

Some argue that this method of expanding and tweaking the financial aid program is the best way to increase socioeconomic diversity. One viable way to do so may be to remove loans from financial packages. The inclusion of loans as a type of “financial aid” draws out the financial burden of low-income students far into the future. Emory, Vassar and Wellesley—along 68 other universities—are all committed to providing “no-loan” financial aid.

The progressive solution to inequality on college campuses takes the model of high tuition and full financial aid to its extreme. Bernie Sanders, for example, famously advocated for fully subsidized tuition at public schools, and Hillary Clinton proposed free tuition at public colleges for families making less than $85,000 per year. However, research shows these proposals would be immensely expensive and could drive up the price of tuition over time. At private schools like Georgetown, these solutions would only intensify the problem of inequality. 

Ultimately, there is little empirical evidence to suggest that Georgetown’s high-tuition model has been successful in attracting low-income students. Thirty-three years ago, education economist D. Kent Halstead was interviewed by the Washington Post about a 1984 tuition hike at Georgetown that brought the total cost of tuition, room and board up to a then-staggering $12,091.

“That’s taking from the rich and giving to the poor,” Halstead said. “A lot of universities are doing it, and I think it’s a good idea so they can maintain a balance of socioeconomic groups.”

Halstead’s views are mirrored in today’s debates over tuition hikes. Yet, more than 30 years after Halstead endorsed Georgetown’s tuition hike, the cost of attending Georgetown has gone up by nearly $60,000, and we are still not a socioeconomically diverse school. More students who attend Georgetown today come from the top 1% than the bottom 60%.

A successful solution to income inequality must abandon these old, failed models. Instead of waiting for federal solutions or incrementally increasing financial aid, Georgetown needs to cut tuition in order address the university’s lack of economic diversity.

Such tuition cuts, especially at a school like Georgetown (which doesn’t boast the large endowment of Harvard or Stanford), would require massive changes to the way the university operates. It would also require creative solutions. Some schools have opted to create online and semi-online degree programs to lower costs. At Northeastern University, for example, a student can earn an online degree in Political Science for the price of $60,480 for a four-year, 120-credit education. These online programs are both affordable and flexible, allowing students to juggle school and work schedules.

Of course, not all major programs are well-suited to an online platform, but one of the best features of online coursework is that it can be adapted to fit students’ needs. For example, a pre-med student can continue to conduct in-person labs for their Organic Chemistry class but attend their philosophy lecture online at a discounted price. While this solution may not be optimal, it is far more beneficial than incurring massive debt and student loans. 

The fact that only 7.1% of Georgetown students come from the bottom 40% is a sign that Georgetown is failing at creating an economically diverse campus. Creating an online platform for Georgetown undergraduates is just one way to drive down tuition costs for students; others ideas, like increasing the size of the student body and relaxing housing requirements, may also prove effective. Regardless of how the administration chooses to go about it, Georgetown needs to rethink its high-tuition model and proactively pursue solutions that put this university in reach for high-achieving, low-income students.

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