Stanford Offers Free Tuition If Your Family Earns Less than 125K. What if you earn 12.5K? Poverty and College Success Rates

[This is reblogged from, April 2, 2015]

Stanford announced a remarkable new program today, that in the future students whose parents earn less than $125,000 will be able to go to Stanford tuition free:


It’s a great idea.   Without any financial aid,  a typical Stanford student pays over $65,000 a year in tuition alone.  What family making less than 125K a year can afford that?  This is a great thing for greater diversity and equality at Stanford, and clearly having such a huge endowment has allowed this great university to make itself available to a wider diversity of students by committing to spend some endowment income in this way instead of myriad other ways a research university can certainly find to spend funds.

Full stop.  In no way do I want to take away from this decision.  A great education should be available to deserving students who are not the ultra rich, the economic 1%.   It’s a greater good to society to make such an education available–and diverse students make the learning of everyone at Stanford far richer and more innovative and exciting, as numerous studies of the benefits of financial aid to those who, themselves, do not need it, have demonstrated.  Stanford’s completion rates–like that of all of the top ten elite universities that serve .3% of the nation’s 21 million college students, are very high, over 95%.  That is largely because of generous support for students that allows a full-time student to be literally a student full time, living on campus where basic human needs are taken care of, where school work is the primary duty of the student.

Now, let’s pull back the camera and think about a larger world out there. What actual percentage of college students in America really can afford to be students full time?  How many work jobs, sometimes two and three jobs, live at home to save costs, have families or other obligations that have nothing to do with being a student? That is a real and serious question because, when pundits wag fingers about “colleges are failing students today” and “low completion rates” they rarely take time to deconstruct the economics of our society that contribute to the low graduation numbers.

In his recent contribution to his student-led unit in our “Mapping the Futures of Higher Education” course, part of the Futures Initiative, Graduate Center doctoral student Evan Misshula presented stunning data about the distressed financial situation of the majority of students at CUNY.  This was a unit on “Life Circumstances and Pedagogical Ethics,” ways we need to think about the every day lives of our students as we think about such issues as “quality,” or “standards” or when we evaluate such metrics as “completion rates.”

At the City University of New York, the nation’s largest public urban university, serving 270,000 full time students and that many part time students, less than 23% of the students come from families where the per capita annual income is greater than $17,500.

Could the comparison be more stark?  Less than a quarter of CUNY students have a family income of over $70,000 a year for a family of four–that is, four people living in New York (the most expensive city in America) on the equivalent of about one year’s tuition at Stanford.

That gap–between a scholarship student at Stanford (family income less than $125,000 a year) and a CUNY student (per capita family income of less than $17,500 per year)–is the American story of extreme income inequality that also needs to be in the headlines.

When pundits pronounce arrogantly about “college students” today–who do they mean? The brilliant Stanford student?  The brilliant CUNY student?  Someone in between?

82% of CUNY students who graduate do so without a penny of tuition debt too, largely because of the percentage living below the poverty line who are eligible for PELL and TAP and other state, federal, and city sources of scholarship aid.

Think, though, of the every day life of each student.  Think about such bland, over-generalized critiques of higher education as “less than of those who enter college graduate.”  Is that the “fault” of our universities?  Or of a vastly inequal social system?

The contrasts in our world could not be greater.  Neither could the contrasts in our economic institutions.  There is no “one size fits all.”  Next time someone trots out national statistics, please remember these numbers and the radically various life circumstances of each “scholarship student.”


If the “end of college” rhetoric is based on such specious over-generalizaton about college students today, it is long since past time that we must put an end to the “end of college” rhetoric.  It is a lie.  At no time in human history has the income disparity between those who have a college degree and those who do not been so great.  All projections are that that will become more so in the future.


As a society, we must remember this.  And we must fight for the right of those who are not wealthy to be educated to a productive, full, rich, ethical life in which they can find meaningful work and contribute meaningfully to society.  That cannot happen if we “blame higher education” for the soaring economic inequality that pervades the walls outside higher education as well as within.


The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309