This Rampart Is Rising; in Many Nations, Class Barriers to College Are Growing

Article excerpt

Byline: Rana Foroohar (With Jason Overdorf in New Delhi, Tracy McNicoll in Paris and Akiko Kashiwagi in Tokyo)

When students take to the streets, they're usually united against something like war or racism. But when Indian students took to the streets last May they had a different cause. These were children of the wealthy upper castes out to stop a plan to reserve more university places for their peers from poor and lower-caste backgrounds. This was youth versus youth, and they were fighting for the status quo.

Resistance to social-leveling campaigns in higher education isn't limited to India. When a top French Grande Ecole--alma mater of presidents and prime ministers--began giving preferential treatment to poor students, there was an outcry from the upper classes. In Britain, there are fears that efforts by top-tier universities to recruit more students from state secondary schools will dumb down the ivory tower. These controversies say something important about the state of academia: for all the pious attacks on injustice that emanate from universities, the class gap is growing from the United States to Britain, parts of Continental Europe and Asia. The reasons are myriad: state-controlled systems that artificially limit the number of university places, admissions procedures that favor the privately educated, falling financial aid and failing public secondary schools.

The bottom line is that the worldwide boom in higher education is not, in many cases, broadening its reach among the poorest. The proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds who have university degrees is rising across the 30 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and exceeds 20 percent in 18 of them. But in nations like Japan and the United States, where education costs are skyrocketing, the typical student comes from a much wealthier background than in the past. At Tokyo University, which has traditionally educated an economically diverse population, nearly half the parents of undergraduates now have incomes higher than $82,500 (well above the national average of about $57,500 for men in their 50s). In the United States, the percentage of students with families making more than $150,000 a year has been rising steadily for over a decade, to nearly 17 percent, while the proportion of those with a family income of $49,000 or less has been declining. A 2003 study of the 146 most selective U.S. colleges found that only 3 percent of students came from the poorest quartile of families, while 74 percent came from the richest.

By some accounts, the class divide is perhaps most pronounced in Europe. The slotting of children into vocational or university tracks continues to limit the upward mobility of many poor kids at an early age. Meanwhile, the relative lack of funding, particularly compared with the United States, means fewer new university slots to accommodate growth in demand. Today, only about a third of all secondary-school grads in the European Union go on to university, and working-class kids are highly underrepresented, especially at elite institutions. In the U.K., where Tony Blair's New Labour Party has made socioeconomic diversity in top schools a key priority, a recent survey found that the share of spots at Oxford that go to state schoolkids (in other words, not rich private-school grads) has fallen 5 percent since 2001.

Politicians and educators everywhere are looking for ways to fix the imbalance. But there's a lingering fear that easing the way for poor kids will bring down the quality of education and, thus, national competitiveness. "My honest opinion is that it is going to be a disaster," says P. V. Indiresan, former director of the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (Madras), about the proposed quota system. "No. 1, it introduces a new social tension which we never had in the IIT system before. No. 2, you need certain institutions in a country where you are able to stream the very best talent available. …