Duke Doesn’t Need “Economic Diversity”

Progressive mudslinging misses what college should be for.

The New York Times is on a tear about “economic diversity.” It’s got a naughty-and-nice list, defined by the number of students with Pell Grants, and it’s stapled a scarlet A (for Affluent) to Duke University, which hasn’t managed to buy as many Pell mascots as its peers. The Times has sent out the memo: Get on the economic-diversity bandwagon now!

The call for “economic diversity” is yet another sign of colleges abandoning the pursuit of educational excellence. But even if you do think colleges should serve an economic purpose—and public universities, at the very least, ought to provide taxpayers a decent economic return on their investment—“economic diversity” misses the point.

The call for “economic diversity” is yet another sign of colleges abandoning the pursuit of educational excellence.The phrase now refers to gold-plated tuition with a set-aside for some number of the poor, who are carefully selected to meet race quotas and presumably wish to secure membership in an increasingly parasitic elite. Instead, public universities should aim to confer “economic self-sufficiency” by providing a solid education at a reasonable price for everyone who aspires to be part of the productive middle class.

There’s no end of reasons to think the current concern with “economic diversity” is nonsense on stilts. They’re all true, although they don’t all share the same premises about the proper purpose of education. For example:

  • Selecting for college admission by any other criterion than ability to pursue the life of the mind betrays the core function of college—and inevitably turns colleges into “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) machines, whose goal is to impose identity-group quotas for admission and graduation rather than to educate individuals.
  • In the aftermath of SFFA v. Harvard, which abolished explicitly racial “diversity” apparatuses, the education establishment now pursues “economic diversity” as an obvious fig leaf for race quotas and hopes they will pass constitutional muster. 
  • The education establishment pursues “economic diversity” not least to distract attention from universities’ appalling lack of intellectual diversity—i.e., the radical monoculture that actively represses all dissenters and does its best to prevent their entry into the university in the first place.
  • The education establishment pursues an arbitrary and selective form of “economic diversity,” which awards benefits to the (identity-group-coalition) poor and squeezes the middle class hard—not least because the middle class is the designated out-group victim for the progressive coalition of the radical gentry and their identity-group clients.
  • “Economic diversity” doesn’t even serve economic goals properly; mismatched students, selected for any form of diversity, won’t benefit appropriately from college education, and the American economy suffers from wasted education dollars and mismatched workforces when American colleges select on grounds of “economic diversity.”
  • If the hollow credential of a college degree serves effectively as a ticket into America’s elite, independent of actual ability, then “economic diversity” merely serves as a sorting mechanism for a corrupt and parasitic elite that contributes nothing to America’s welfare.

None of these arguments even addresses the argument that was the operating assumption of European education from ancient Greece and Rome to the 20th century: that wealth was necessary for leisure; that leisure was necessary for real dedication to intellectual inquiry; that the need to work therefore inevitably degraded the ability to conduct the life of the mind; and, in consequence, that only the leisured wealthy could truly benefit from a proper education. Any professor who has taught a student who is also working a 40-hour job, and gives the job priority over reading for class, will think the ancients had a point. Any proponent of “economic diversity” ought to justify his argument in spirited debate with an able proponent for confining higher education to the leisured wealthy.

“Economic diversity” is not the best economic goal for higher education.That debate also should include a participant who argues that a college with nothing but kids who’ve never had to work for a living is missing something. Adam Smith put it that the exercise of prudence had an educative function, and that the need to pursue one’s own economic self-interest is the most sharply educative lesson of all. To know the price of something is how we learn to assign proper spiritual values; the phrase luxury beliefs brings to mind someone who has never undergone that educative function. Students who have had to work for a living also are less likely to take Woke fairy-tales on faith, so including working students in higher education on net would increase political pluralism on campus.

That would make for a fine abstract debate—but the most important point is that “economic diversity” is not the best economic goal for higher education. The best economic goal is “economic self-sufficiency”—higher education cheap enough for the middle class to attend without financial assistance, which therefore attracts a self-reliant student body that will bring the spirit of yeoman democracy to our colleges.

The New York Times thinks the proportion of Pell Grant recipients is the most important economic number in college. It is wrong. The most important number is the ratio of median income to annual tuition, which tells you whether college is worthwhile for the middle class. That number’s been falling for 50 years. The price of tuition has been rising in real terms—so starkly that the real marker of wealth in America, the divide between the rich and the rest, is whether you can go to college without going into debt. The ratio has worsened most for men at public colleges: In 1971, the median annual income was five times the cost of tuition, but by 2021 that number had fallen from five to two. Why pay for so little return?

The best reason now to go to college is to try for a chance into the gold-plated elite—and if you can go only thanks to financial aid, you’ve become a client of the university and the government and ceded your birthright of self-reliance.

We should adopt the goal of “economic self-sufficiency.” That’s a fancy way of saying we need colleges that cost $10,000 a year, which would bring America back to the ratio between median income and college costs we had in 1971. $10,000 colleges will serve the middle classes, not the parasitic rich. That should be the goal, whatever the means. But a side-benefit of that goal is that, to get there, you’d probably have to fire all the administrative commissars and drones infesting higher education.

Don’t expect the New York Times to run a chart on economic self-sufficiency anytime soon. The Times is the company newsletter for the useless in all walks of American life. America’s policymakers and citizens should start to remake our universities with economic self-sufficiency in mind, and they shouldn’t stop until annual tuition costs only four digits.

David Randall is the research director of the National Association of Scholars.