The Value of College: A Look at Economic Diversity

By Jaheim Pierre ’25 and Paulina Tejada ’25

Staff Writers

Access to education in the United States has been unequal for centuries and has affected all facets of the social, economic, and cultural life of America. The first African American to attend college was reported to be Alexander Lucius Twilight who graduated from Amherst College in 1823, and the first woman, Catherine Brewer, obtained her degree 17 years later at Wesleyan College in Georgia.   

The academic landscape at that time was brutal to economic, racial, and religious minorities– a legacy that persists today. Laws have been set up to legalize boundaries that created generations of people in society that have extremely limited economic mobility. This limited access to economic mobility dwarfed prospects of future generations having any tangible benefits from an economic system they contribute to.  

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) cites that diversity helps the overall economy whereby more factions of society have the access to creating more output in the economy. A Harvard Business Review report concluded that “Teams solve problems faster when they are more cognitively diverse.” The normative reference to diversity is oftentimes limited to appearance which oftentimes results in ridicule and questioning of the qualifications of said constituent.  

Hobart and William Smith Colleges played a critical role in ushering “difference” in academic circles on the national stage. The first woman in 1849 to graduate from medical school, Elizabeth Blackwell, earned her degree at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, nine years after the first African American matriculant at Amherst, Isaiah George DeGrasse, became the first African American to study on the shores of the Seneca Lake. Additionally, in 2002 the Colleges became the first college to offer an undergraduate major in the field of LGBT/Critical Sexuality and Queer Studies. 

Beyond Geneva, modern academia has responded to that change in sentiment through systematic amendments and has changed norms, attitudes, and bylaws to accommodate a diverse population that will help to construct a pipeline for economic inclusion.  The rating systems for colleges are based on prestige and a demographic that is represented by a certain economic class, typically a higher class. In recent times, however, colleges have made substantial attempts to destigmatize a college value away from these rating categories.  

Williams College, a small liberal arts college in Williamstown, Massachusetts recently announced that in the fall of 2022, financial aid packages will not include any loans and increase the number of grants in those categories. Harvard University announced a similar incentive to attractive economic diversity by announcing that members of the class of 2026 would have a $0 contribution towards their education if their family income is less than or equal to $75,000.  

Across online forums like College Confidential and student opinions on campus, the HWS is widely seen as a rich, preppy haven for boarding school graduates. According to the school’s website, however, 96% of students receive merit awards, scholarships, and/or financial aid. 63% of admitted students in the Classes of 2024 are from public high schools, as well as a population of 25% multicultural students in that same class year– a number that is not unusually different from HWS peer schools.  

According to the New York Times Upshot, however, the Colleges are among the top in the Liberty League, New York, and private selective colleges in family median income. In 2013, the Upshot reported that the median family income of an HWS student is $161,200 which makes it 6 out of 173 colleges in New York and 71 out of the 2,395 colleges reviewed in this category. That median income surpasses other highly ranked schools such as Cornell, Columbia, and N.Y.U. This begs the question– what culture persists in the 1,824-student population with that median number?  

The top 1% is talked about frequently in the media but loosely defined, according to the New York Times Upshot, one percent is defined as families who made above $630,000. In that category HWS again does extremely well, as it is ranked 8 out of 173 colleges in New York and 69 out of 2,395 colleges. From that data, it can be concluded that the Colleges have a higher population of students with families in the one percent category than in the high median category nationally. 

On the other side of the data, HWS scored 154 out of 173 families making 20,000 or less per year in New York state and 2,051 out of 2,395 in the country. After looking at the data, one student wrote to the Herald

 “Where this may be true, looking at the data provided by the New York Times article, one can 

see that the results may just be warped. The number of students accepted into this school tends to be students who come from a higher class, meaning that the people who are truly coming from economically impoverished places are very minimally accepted. One can conclude that there is not much economic growth for many students in a way that is truly impactful. The people who are already in good economic standing end up going to a higher class. The article states that 77% of the students who attend HWS have parents who make more than $100,000. While 18.7% of students come from parents that are above the poverty line, meaning that they make less than $100,000 but more than $35,000 in a 4-member household. Meaning that the 4.3% of students who attend HWS that are below the poverty line are not as impacted after graduation in terms of elevated economic status.” 

Along with the limited admission of students with low-income, the question of how the Colleges plan to support these students persists. Today at the colleges there are programs such as Posse, HEOP, and the First-Generation Initiative. According to Forbes, HWS slightly falls below its peer group but significantly above the national average with a graduation rate of 73%. 

The HWS administration is aware of the contemporary challenges surrounding economic diversity and inclusivity and has made tangible steps to support solving those challenges through its most recent strategic plan. The HWS plan has three major themes including increasing academic effectiveness, building financial and operational excellence, and enhancing the college’s reputation. A subcategory of increasing academic effectiveness is the appointment of the new Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, which according to the plan intends to “strengthen and augment inclusion programming and moving toward the goal of all members of the HWS community becoming integral parts of a diverse, inclusive, and equitable campus. This includes increasing student and faculty diversity to better reflect national and international demographics. Improving the ability of all students to traverse the range of diverse environments that they will experience throughout their lives and careers must become part of the HWS experience.” 

In 2013, the Obama administration declared a war on college rankings outlets, urging them to change the focus from ranking to evaluating student outcomes. Obama argued that if colleges are incentivized for rankings they may “game the numbers and in some cases, [get rewarded] for raising costs.” Another argument made by the former president was that “It’s impossible to capture an institution’s value and its impact on students with a single metric.” The Obama Administration urged students to see college as an investment and any investment information is key to making a college decision.  

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