Section: Opinion

NYT report shock ignores financial reality

A recent report from The New York Times highlighted colleges and universities across the country with more students from the top one percent of the socioeconomic scale than from the bottom 60 percent. To some students’ surprise, Kenyon placed eighth on this list, with nearly 20 percent of our students coming from the one percent and only 12.2 percent from the bottom 60 percent. Personally, I was more amazed at the surprise of other students than the actual statistic, because it’s hard to ignore the wealth of many here. While the initial reaction of many Kenyon students might be to criticize our institution for its apparent lack of economic diversity, a closer look at comparable schools and endowment data shows some nuance that does not paint Kenyon in such a bad light after all.

When considering the Times figures, we should remember that Kenyon’s endowment hovers around $220 million, which severely limits its ability to attract students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. When compared to the top 32 liberal arts colleges from the U.S. News and World Report’s list of Best Liberal Arts Colleges 2017, Kenyon has the second-lowest endowment, rivaled only by Pitzer College. Pitzer, however, is aided by its ability to share resources with the other four colleges in the Claremont system. This might factor into its position at #28 on The New York Times list. Bates College, which has the third-lowest endowment, sits at #17. Both schools, despite limited means, are able to recruit a more socioeconomically diverse group of students than Kenyon.

The money that schools receive from their endowments comes from returns on investments; it’s not simply a pool of money that the school can use. That said, the picture looks a bit different when the numbers are adjusted to account for the number of students at each school — an endowment-per-student calculation. The lowest three schools in terms of endowment dollars per student are Kenyon, Pitzer and Barnard College. Notably, this readjustment shows that Tufts University, Bucknell University and Trinity College — all in the Times list’s top 10 — also sit towards the bottom of the list in terms of endowment-per-student. It seems likely then that the relative positions of these schools on the Times list might be related to the fact that they have fewer endowment dollars per student.

While the list may show Kenyon in a poor light in a nominal sense, our endowment-per-student shows that we’re doing much better than schools like Washington and Lee University, which has the eighth highest endowment-per-student of the top liberal arts colleges, yet ranks third  on the Times list. With an endowment the size of Washington and Lee’s, one might expect it to be in a better position than Kenyon to recruit from different backgrounds, but the Times data shows otherwise.

With an endowment the size of Kenyon’s, more students who pay full tuition are needed to offset the financial aid provided to others. In the 2016-2017 school year, only six percent of Kenyon’s whole budget came from endowment support and 78 percent came from student tuition and fees. Despite this, 23 percent of the College’s budget was devoted to financial aid. While Kenyon’s resources won’t allow us to swiftly begin recruiting more students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, our budget shows a clear, continued commitment to financial aid. Still, Kenyon may have something to learn from the example of a college like Pitzer or Bates, which, despite comparably small endowments, have found ways to enroll many more students from the bottom 60 percent of the socioeconomic scale.

Given our age of populist politicians and political pundits screaming at each other on the news, my goal with this column will be to try to look at issues rationally and write about them reasonably. Of course Kenyon could be doing better, but the College could be doing much worse too. My hope is that I can provide a voice for political moderation and to speak up when I think issues are being misrepresented or misunderstood. I will attack bad ideas but never those who hold them, and I will try to be nuanced in all critiques — all of this with the goal of keeping Kenyon as great as it is.

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