Private Jets and Cushy Dorms: Colleges Indulge the 1% as Inequality Deepens


For [high school] seniors, spring brings college acceptance letters – and financial aid packages, full of forms to fill out. For [high school] juniors, it’s the season to visit those institutions they dream of attending 18 months from now, to talk to admissions officials and tour the campuses.

Of course, for those lucky enough to be in the top 1% of wealthy Americans, the whole process will be infinitely easier.

Even the endless process of visiting one campus after another – an arduous ritual in many families – is turned into a smooth process for those able to write a check for the equivalent of a year’s tuition at some top-notch colleges. Magellan Jets is offering “1%” families a special college tour package: 10 Hour Jet Cards for $43,500, entitling buyers not only to 10 hours of private jet time but to the help of the company’s logistics team to organize a customized itinerary and arrange car service at your destinations. (Those car trips will include guided tours of the local town, if you’ve got the time.)

Once you’ve finished a visit, the company will leave notepads at your seat for you to jot down your thoughts – and then condense the fruits of all those notations in a summarized overview of your visits for you. Oh, and if you’re interested in athletics, Magellan promises to arrange a meet and greet “with high profile alumni”.

It’s not quite your father’s station wagon.

We’ve become accustomed to the idea that we need to find ways to improve primary and secondary education, giving very smart and highly motivated kids like the young Sonia Sotomayor (today, a supreme court justice; in the 1960s, the daughter of a single mother living in the housing projects in the Bronx) a way to move from the economic and social margins of American society to the mainstream.

But as the wealth gap has widened steadily, to the point where the median net worth of upper-income families is nearly seven times that of a middle-class household, and 70 times what a family like Sotomayor’s might earn today, according to a report from the Pew Research Center, the college experience is mirroring that. The 1% may fly on private jets to check out prospective campuses – including some where their parents may have made substantial donations to build computer labs, athletic facilities or other facilities, turning them into so-called “development applicants” and giving them a leg up. For some members of the bottom 1%, whose family budget may not even stretch to a bus ticket, the first time they visit a college campus may be the day they arrive to register and move into their dorms, long after they have been accepted.

Naturally enough, the money race starts with the application process itself. A member of the 1% can pay $14,000 or so to participate in a four-day “ application boot camp” sponsored by an admissions counseling firm whose charges run up to the equivalent of a year’s tuition.

It’s true that most top-tier universities want diversity, and will actively seek out members of – well, let’s call them the bottom 1% – to balance their student body and to ensure that the best and the brightest have access to a great education. We may well applaud moves by colleges with big endowments, like Stanford, to make their education more affordable by offering full tuition. Indeed, Stanford just announced that anyone whose family income or assets fall below $125,000 won’t have to pay a dime in tuition; those making less than $65,000 will get free room and board as well.

After taking a few moments to ponder the irony that $125,000 – a decidedly middle-class income – is now “poor” enough to get you a free ride at Stanford, while Princeton doesn’t charge tuition if your family makes less than $140,000, let’s consider what the university experience is like for members of the two extremes – both the upper and lower 1%.

Many universities have rushed to install amenities for the top tier, knowing that it’s one way to compensate for the lack of an Ivy League name. Princeton can get away with its ho-hum dorm rooms – they were never designed to be luxurious. Woodrow Wilson, when he was president of the university, tried to combat the “us versus them” mindset that he saw luxurious off-campus eating clubs as fostering, and deliberately built modest, basic dormitories. But elsewhere? These days, it seems, the sky is the limit when trying to appeal to the top 1%.

You can see the arms race most clearly in dorm rooms, rather than in academics. Imagine a cafeteria that dishes up tortellini with walnut pesto sauce, a climbing wall and a “bouldering cave”, a fireside lounge, tanning facilities, an Olympic-sized lap pool and, ahem, “spherical nap pods”.

Some of the new amenities aren’t even necessary. Wichita State built a new $65m residence hall, complete with all kinds of technology, at the heart of the campus. It costs nearly twice as much to live there as it does to live in older dorms – which have vacancies. So why build it? Because students want more, and they and/or their parents will pay more to get it.

It isn’t just the universities that are catering to this top 1% demographic. Private developers have woken up to the fact that parents sending their children away to college want them to live with the comforts of home, and in smaller communities, like Columbia, Missouri (home to three separate universities), they are racing to build luxury apartments – and offering video game rooms, theater rooms, golf simulators and “the most over the top amenities”. Some students actually figure they probably won’t bother going to classes, and just treat their college experience as a vacation, even as the community itself worries about the lack of affordable housing for year-round citizens and working families.

And if you’re the upper 1%, of course, you can have access to a personal concierge, just as if you lived at the Pierre or the Ritz. The same demographic who tour their prospective colleges by personal jet can have their concierges decorate their dorm rooms, get hold of tickets to concerts or sporting events, or arrange parties – a phenomenon that didn’t even exist a few years ago.

Meanwhile, the bottom 1%, too, is starting to be heard, at last. For this group, college has never been easy. Not being able to afford textbooks meant that some freshmen or sophomores always were behind their peers – however hard they studied. Juggling jobs and a heavy course load reduce the odds that they’ll do well in school – and even if they aren’t paying tuition, they still have to find a way to live in costly cities. And few colleges are as generous in offering full tuition packages as Stanford and Princeton are.

For the bottom 1%, a college diploma is supposed to be their ticket to the top 1% – or at least, to the top 10%. But in a recent op-ed in the Columbia Spectator, a first-year Columbia University student bluntly laid out the reality of being a member of the bottom 1%, living in an environment dominated by the top 1%, with their casual assumptions.

“What was once a straightforward concept of upward mobility is no more,” the author writes. It has been replaced by “upward friction”, as “the answer many low-income students get when discussing their struggles is ‘work harder’.”

While their affluent peers enjoy the rock-climbing walls and personal butlers, some members of the bottom 1% literally wonder where they’ll be sleeping at night, or where their next meal is coming from. One student posted on the Columbia University Class Confessions Facebook page about tradeoffs like losing an hour’s pay to meet with a professor – only to have the professor forget to show up.

The big tuition checks that the top 1% are writing may be helping to subsidize the ability of the bottom 1% to attend college at all, but telling the latter group “just be glad you’re here; now, figure it out”, doesn’t seem like the right approach, even as colleges and private companies bend over backwards to accommodate their wealthier peers. Just offering families more ways to save for college expenses, and suggesting that they save more, isn’t enough: college costs are rising too rapidly and total student debt now has topped $1.3tn.

Maybe we should look at what is happening in Europe, where colleges in Germany, Denmark and Sweden offer free college tuition. Of course, it comes without frills. There are no lavish dorms, no lap pools. And there’s no bottom 1%, worrying about where they’ll sleep.

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