Why big state colleges are increasingly dominated by wealthy students

Jillian Berman

Public higher education is often thought of as a way to help level the playing field between Americans of all stripes, but there’s evidence that flagship public colleges aren’t the engines of mobility we think.

These schools are often thought a way to provide students from a variety of backgrounds with a high-quality education at an affordable cost. But a new study adds to the growing body of evidence that these schools increasingly serve wealthier students.

Between 1972 and 2007, the share of applicants to the University of Wisconsin-Madison from the bottom fifth of the income distribution stayed roughly the same at less than 5%, according to a study published last week in the Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences. During the same period, the share of applicants from the second-lowest income quintile declined from at least 20% or more to just 11.5% in 2007. But the share of applicants from the top two highest income levels grew from 42.6% to 64.1%.

The university does make efforts to reach more low-income applicants, including through outreach, scholarship programs and transfer agreements with two-year colleges, whose classes typically include a large share of low-income students, according to Meredith McGlone, a University of Wisconsin-Madison spokeswoman. In addition, the school upped its need-based grant aid from $6.6 million during the 2007-2008 academic year to $31.3 million this past academic year, she said.