Top US Universities Don’t Need White Money. By Rob Long.
One thing Americans like to do is tell perfect strangers where they went to university. There’s even an old joke about it:
“How can you tell that a person went to Harvard?”
“You don’t have to. They’ll tell you in the first three minutes.”
The backside of the car is where many upper-middle-class Americans make this announcement. Stroll through any upscale neighbourhood — the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Brooklyn’s Park Slope, the West Village of Lower Manhattan — and you’ll pass car after car festooned with university seals.
A few years ago, all of the stickers were exactly what you’d expect: Yale, Princeton, Harvard — maybe a Stanford or University of Virginia tossed in here and there. Expensive boutique colleges were also represented widely — places like Wesleyan and Bates and Williams College. Manhattan’s Upper East Side was where elite parents sent their elite children to elite schools, and they kept the general public notified of this by applying stickers to the rear window.
But now, not so many rich white kids are getting into the top schools:
Lately, though, things have changed. There are fewer and fewer cars sporting the famous names and more and more festooned with places you’ve never heard of, like Elon, the University of Richmond, and Grinnell. The American class system is changing.
“I spent about $250,000 sending my kid to the most expensive prep school in New York,” a friend of mine told me. “And his college counsellor told us that he’s probably not going to get into Yale, or any Ivy League, or even Georgetown. He told us we should be looking at places like the University of Washington and Gettysburg College.” …
Going from Princeton, say, to the University of Illinois in one generation feels alarmingly like backsliding, like slipping down the ladder of power and money, which is why my Yale classmate seemed so embittered. He’s paid a king’s ransom in school fees, he’s played the game by the rules, and now he’s discovered that the rules have changed.
It used to work this way: rich parents went to elite schools and colleges, and made regular and hefty financial contributions to those institutions after graduation. They would respond to annual appeals, alumni newsletters, capital campaigns — whenever their alma mater stretched out the open palm — by sending a cheque.
The unspoken understanding was that this generosity would be repaid later when their children applied to the same places. A Harvard alumnus who had been a reliable donor to the university had a fair expectation that his child would get a little extra consideration when the time came. Not undue consideration, of course — elite universities wouldn’t take a clearly unqualified kid unless the parents were very very rich. But for the ordinary rich kid, the rule was that he or she needed to be intellectually prepared or at the very least a useful addition to a sports team.
But the prestigious US universities are now so wealthy they don’t need donations, and are free to exercise their ideological preferences when choosing their students:
In 1987, Harvard University had about $4 billion in the kitty. Yale trailed miserably at $1.7 billion.
In 2021, Harvard had about $42 billion in the bank, and Yale had about $32 billion. …
This is a good thing, I suppose, unless you’re a Manhattan parent with a Princeton sticker on his car who has been sending in his alumni fund cheques without complaint, only to discover to his horror that Princeton does not need his money any more.
Princeton, in fact, is a perfect example of the collapse of the old system. Its endowment is roughly $32 billion, and when the size of its programs and expenditures is factored in, it’s fair to say that Princeton doesn’t need anyone’s money anymore. As long as it stays at roughly the same size, Princeton is a perpetual money machine.
Freed from the need to accommodate the children of their mostly white, mostly wealthy alumni, the elite American universities are able to pursue their passion for social and political change, which comes under the umbrella of “diversity”. And if there’s one thing you can say about most of the kids who grow up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and attend expensive private schools, it’s that they ain’t diverse. …
Desperate to get into the top schools:
If Princeton is out, what’s the most prestigious second (or third) choice?
“Vanderbilt is such a hot school,” a mother of a kid at an elite Brooklyn private school told me recently. “But I don’t think our kid is going to get in there.”
Her child is a very bright student, with excellent test scores and distinction on the squash court and a couple of summer holidays filled with character-building volunteer work. He is also, unfortunately, rich and white. And while his mother knew that Yale and Harvard were long, long shots, she always assumed that Vanderbilt, in Nashville, Tennessee, was a realistic alternative. So did all of the other parents with bright students at fancy schools. …
For parents of the laptop class — that is, parents who can work remotely without suffering financial consequences — there is one remaining Hail Mary tactic to get their kids into Harvard or Yale.
“We’re thinking of moving to Kentucky,” an old friend of mine told me recently. … He and his wife were terrified of their children’s college futures — both in expensive private schools in New York; good students and so on; but whiter than rice — and they heard that in the college admissions world, there’s such a thing as “geographic diversity”. It turns out that a rich white kid from Kentucky — the fifth-poorest state in the country — is a lot more interesting to college admissions officers than a rich white kid from the Upper East Side. I reminded my friend that Mississippi and Alabama are poorer still, but he held up his hand in a Let’s not go crazy gesture.
All the way:
But if moving to a smaller, poorer state seems like a drastic step, I have another former Yale classmate who is experiencing a very contemporary parental crisis.
“My youngest kid announced that he’s non-binary,” he told me over a drink last week.
“He?” I asked.
He sighed. “They, okay? They announced that they’re non-binary.”
He then ranted a bit about the current trend for privileged Manhattan children in expensive prep schools to declare all sorts of baffling and fashionable gender identities. Like any parents in 2023, he and his wife are torn between supporting their newly non-binary them and rolling their eyes and praying for this particular phase to be over before anyone starts talking about hormone supplements and surgery.
He took a big swig of his drink and then sighed.
“On the other hand,” he said, “it’ll make him a lot more interesting to the admissions people at Harvard. He’s just another rich white kid from a Manhattan private school otherwise. This non-binary thing may make him seem a little more … you know, diverse.”
“Him?” I asked.
“Them, okay? And shut up.”
Adding another Yale sticker to the car has never been more expensive. Or complicated.