The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How higher education made President Trump

Donald Trump, who had just been elected president of the United States, gestures as he speaks at an election night rally in New York on Nov. 9, 2016. Mike Segar/Reuters

In the last few weeks I attended several higher education conferences where the talk among campus officials in the hallways and in sessions was usually centered around the same topic: President Trump. What’s clear in these conversations is that the much-discussed education divide that separated the electorate last fall between those with a college degree and those without has not dissipated since the election.

But the disdain academics exhibit for Trump these days ignores the role that their own colleges and universities played over the past two decades in fueling the working-class anger that led to his 2016 victory.

The story begins in the 1990s, when a college degree became increasingly necessary for economic success. The manufacturing sector, with its middle-class jobs requiring only a high-school diploma, had mostly collapsed the previous decade.

This shift in the economy coincided with a sea change in college admissions. The ease of travel and declining cost of communications meant that admissions was no longer a local game where even selective colleges with large endowments and strong brand names recruited mostly in surrounding states. When the U.S. News & World Report rankings became an annual publication in the late 1980s, colleges jockeyed to move up the rankings in order to gain prestige. To do that, they had to find better students outside their usual recruitment zone. And for schools a few rungs down the rankings ladder, it required luring top-notch students with boatloads of financial aid—even if their families didn’t need the money to send their kids to college.

Access to higher education for students at all income levels, which had been prevailing policy since the signing of the Higher Education Act in 1965, was shoved aside. In the drive for prestige, selective colleges in particular became less economically diverse, full of wealthy students and a few smart kids lucky to get a Pell grant (which mostly go to students from families making less than $50,000 annually).  In 2013-14, only 22 percent of students received Pell grants at top universities, compared to around 38 percent everywhere else. Students on Pell grants tend to be clustered at less-selective public and private colleges, and poor-performing for-profit colleges.

[Colleges often give discounts to the rich. But here’s one that gave up on ‘merit aid.’]

This economic disparity is well known in higher education, but the extent of it became clear last month when researchers released the most comprehensive look to date at the financial background of students on college campuses. The results of the study—gleaned from analyzing the tax records of some 30 million students born between 1980 and 1991 and linked to nearly every college in the country—were startling.

At 38 colleges, including five in the Ivy League, there are more students from families in the top 1 percent in income than the bottom 60 percent. What’s more, about 25 percent of the richest students attend a selective, elite college. By comparison, less than one-half of 1 percent of children from the bottom fifth of U.S. families by income attend an elite college.

As the economic divide grew ever wider among students on campuses over the last two decades, countless students graduated from college without the benefit of ever really knowing classmates from working-class families. Some of them then came to Washington to work on Capitol Hill, in the White House and in federal agencies to develop policies that would impact people without a college degree. They had little idea what it was like to lack a credential that carried so much weight in the job market.

[The rich get richer in higher ed: 40 colleges hold two-thirds of the wealth, and growing]

Instead of being shocked by Trump’s win, higher education leaders should look internally at their own strategies that focused on gaining prestige and often exacerbated the growing economic divide by favoring students from wealthy and middle-class families.

College leaders are beginning to take notice. In December, a handful of selective colleges and universities announced an effort to identify, recruit, and support highly qualified low-income students. The American Talent Initiative aims to boost the number of Pell grant recipients at the 270 colleges with the highest graduation rates by 50,000 within 10 years (an increase of more than 10 percent).

This effort is a good start to reverse the trends of the last two decades, but it might be too little, too late. Higher education lost an entire generation of students who will become leaders in the future and missed out on an opportunity to have an undergraduate experience full of students from different economic backgrounds.