The Problem with Wealth at Furman, Continued

By: Courtney Kratz, Opinions Editor

This article is a follow-up to “The Problem with Wealth at Furman,” a piece I wrote in response to the Equality of Opportunity Project’s 2017 study on economic diversity in higher education. I’ve met with a number of Furman administrators, including the president, to discuss the problem of economic diversity at Furman. I hope to address their concerns, the pervasiveness of the problem and possible solutions. For your convenience, the following includes some of the data that prompted me to write.

According to the Equality of Opportunity Project, the median family income of a student at Furman is 181,500 dollars, and 71 percent of our students come from the top 20 percent of wealth in America. Sixteen percent come from the top one percent. Furman is ranked number one in the South for highest median parent income and most students from the top one percent. We rank last in Southern colleges for students from the bottom fifth, and 2,345th out of 2,395 colleges nationwide.

In my own research through the Department of Education’s 2016-17 reports, I found that a deeply troubling amount of financial aid is distributed as merit-based aid given to wealthy students as a recruitment tool. The total amount of aid awarded to students with income levels of 110,000 dollars or more was more than 3.6 million dollars. This only includes students who were awarded title IV federal aid, meaning that this number doesn’t include the 40 percent of our students who did not file a FAFSA but did likely receive institutional aid (Only 3 percent of our student body pays full tuition). The average amount of aid awarded to students from income levels of 48,000 dollars or lower was around 42,000 dollars, while the average amount of aid provided to students from income levels of 110,000 dollars or more was around 28,000 dollars, a comparable amount of aid despite a marked difference in income level.

Compared to the 3.6 million awarded to wealthy students — and granted, there are less lower- and middle-income students who enroll at Furman — only about 1.9 million dollars of grant and scholarship aid was awarded to students with income levels of less than 30,000 dollars a year, and around 1.8 million dollars was awarded to students from income levels between 30,000 and 48,000 dollars. Much of this aid is also federally awarded, meaning the bulk of Furman’s aid seems distributed to those included in the 3.6 million dollars as well as those who don’t file a FAFSA.

This data concerns me for a number of reasons, namely that the private liberal arts colleges who have had the most success enrolling low-income students have done so by eliminating or drastically reducing their merit-based aid and reallocating funds to meet students’ need (see Vassar and Franklin & Marshall College, for example). This is a complex process with a number of challenges, challenges Furman’s administrators were very thorough in explaining to me.

Dean Peterson and Provost Shields were quite candid with me, saying that it was “absolutely” true that merit-based aid is going to students who don’t need it. President Davis attributed this to the following problem: institutions with a higher rank are more able to meet students’ need than others. What she refers to is the U.S. News & World Report College rankings in which Furman ranks 51st of national liberal arts colleges. “At your top ranked institutions,” she said, “people with money pay full price no matter how smart they are. That’s not the same at Furman. Instead of using all of our financial aid to help meet need, part of the financial aid is merit so that we have the kind of academic profile that we want.” In other words, “part” of Furman’s aid is used to convince wealthy students to attend Furman rather than more elite universities.  While this may be a market necessity, I’d like to reiterate that “part” of our aid is over 3.6 million dollars in merit and tuition discounts awarded to wealthy students. This is no small sum.

My problem is not that this practice exists, but that at Furman, it seems to exist in the extreme. Because 40 percent of the student body doesn’t file a FAFSA, there’s no way to know just how much merit-based aid is going to wealthy students, but it is certainly well over 3.6 million dollars. Surely it is possible that this sum could be reduced to meet the needs of more low-income students.

“If we lower the merit aid too much, and we don’t have the market position to sustain it, students won’t go here,” said Provost Shields. Dean Peterson echoed the same sentiment, saying that as Furman’s education is better valued, students will be more willing to pay full or higher tuition and thus offset the cost for low-income students. But currently, only 3 percent of our students pay full-tuition, when 16 percent of our students come from the top 1 percent, meaning their families make more than 400,000 dollars a year. While the people I spoke with assured me that this is absolutely a university concern and that more students should be paying full or higher price, I don’t feel that this concern is matched in practice given the massive amount of aid we disproportionately provide to students who don’t need it.

I am under the impression that Furman’s administrators are not prepared to make more than incremental changes to aid distribution until Furman is higher ranked and better recognized for its prestige. Dean Peterson mentioned that Furman would likely need to be in the 40’s before we could attract enough full-paying students to offset the cost for low-income applicants. I have two problems with this approach: Firstly, until Furman is ranked number one in the nation, there will always be cause to neglect economic diversity. Secondly, even if Furman were higher ranked and had more full-paying students, at that point, wealthy students are just being shuffled among high-ranking colleges across the nation; it seems the number of Pell grant students wouldn’t increase nationally but would simply be redistributed. I find it shortsighted to approach economic diversity from this perspective. Both Furman and higher education in general should be conscious of more nation-wide solutions.

While President Davis assured me that there has been a shift from merit to need-based aid, Brad Pochard, Associate Vice President for Enrollment and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, clarified that that there is going to be a shift, one that is more evident in the class admitted for Fall 2019, which will have more of their demonstrated need met by federal and institutional aid than any year prior. In the next five to six years, the number of low-income students in higher education might also rise because U.S. News & World Report is implementing a Pell-grant metric next Spring, which will incentivize colleges to enroll and retain Pell-eligible students.

It is worth noting that some effort has been made to improve economic diversity at Furman. At the recommendation of the Task Force on Slavery and Justice, the Joseph Vaughn scholarship will be increased to 1 million dollars in annual awards, along with a 3 million dollar endowment. Parallel to this effort, Furman has established pipelines to economically disadvantaged areas of South Carolina, already enrolling 35-50 students who benefit from South Carolina  state grants. The Furman Advantage also helps ensure that these students have equal access to academic and professional opportunities. Additional efforts are being made to secure national grants and support for low-income students, but more is needed.

From a diversity standpoint, it is also noteworthy that Furman hired its first chief diversity officer, Dr. Michael E. Jennings, in May 2017, and in the past two years, Furman’s faculty went from 35 percent female and 11.7 percent faculty of color, to 40 percent female and 15.7 percent faculty of color. Ultimately, however, only 13 percent of our student body is Pell-eligible, and we are an exemplar for economic homogeneity in higher education. But Furman isn’t alone in facing the problem of economic diversity, and we aren’t alone in finding solutions.

The American Talent Initiative (ATI) is a Bloomberg Philanthropies-supported collaboration between the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, Ithaka S+R and a growing alliance of colleges and universities dedicated to expanding opportunity and access for low- and middle-income students. ATI aims to attract, enroll and graduate 50,000 lower-income students in participating universities by 2025, and I encourage Furman to contribute to their efforts and join their coalition.

“We have this beautiful moment in Furman’s history where so much energy is coming together that we now can have conversations about [economic diversity] and imagine that yes, this is going to become a reality for us. Ten years ago, we just didn’t have the momentum or the energy around it,” said Dean Peterson. To students and faculty, I encourage you to demonstrate interest and concern for economic diversity at Furman and ensure that existing efforts continue. Our aid is considerably underfunded—half of it is simply tuition discounts—and I would encourage alumni to participate in our Partners program to support incoming students with financial need. In the meantime, I hope our administration will shift our massive amount of merit-based aid given to wealthy families over to those who need it, regardless of where we stand in the rankings.

As the wealth-gap in America widens, it is imperative that universities commit to equal opportunity.  The college admissions scandal has brought increased scrutiny to higher education, and universities across the nation are making a public and concerted effort to make higher edcuation accessible for all, regardless of socio-economic status. It is my hope that Furman will not be left behind in these efforts.

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