How Norms of Affluence on College Campuses Affect Inequality

January 20, 2016

This feature is part of an ongoing RSF blog series, Work in Progress, which highlights some of the research of our current class of Visiting Scholars.

In a time of rising college tuitions and soaring student loan debt, higher education has become increasingly inaccessible to all but the affluent. Though a number of policymakers—including several of the 2016 presidential candidates—have sought to make post-secondary education more affordable for the middle class, new research shows that college campuses themselves may play a role in exacerbating inequality.

At the Foundation, Visiting Scholar Tali Mendelberg (Princeton University) is conducting an in-depth analysis of the consequences of affluence on U.S. college campuses, looking at how concentrations of high-income students at universities may reinforce economic inequality. She is exploring whether the presence of many affluent students creates social norms on campuses that prioritize the wealthy and marginalize low-income students, thereby leading to lower rates of leadership and future political participation among low-income young adults.

In an interview with the Foundation, Mendelberg explained how these norms are established, how they exacerbate inequality, and what kinds of policies might ameliorate them. A paper on this topic will be published later this year (a working paper can be found here).

Q. Recent studies of social inequality, including work by RSF author Martin Gilens, have shown that affluent Americans (those in the top 10% of the income distribution) hold significant influence over public policy and tend to oppose policies that reduce inequality. Your current work expands this body of research to look at the role of college campuses in shaping the economic preferences of the affluent. Although colleges have long been thought to "liberalize" students' beliefs, you've found that they can also conservatize. How has this worked in terms of students' economic beliefs? What kinds of norms around money and affluence are established on college campuses?

Mendelberg: Colleges are places where social norms can be very strong, and where individuals are highly motivated to follow their peers’ central tendency. With rising income inequality lower- and middle-income students are finding it more difficult to attend four-year colleges. College campuses are therefore becoming disproportionately more affluent. As they concentrate higher numbers of affluent students, they inadvertently foster peer norms reflecting affluent lifestyles and tastes. When those affluent lifestyles combine with a norm of materialism—when most students are also motivated by making money—then we see a powerful conservatizing effect from attending a school with many affluent students. In other words, students at this age are ready to adopt ways of acting and thinking that their peers think are appropriate, and when peers prioritize financial gain in order to maintain their affluence, this activates affluent students’ tendency to allow affluent people to keep their affluence. Students become more supportive of policies such as keeping taxes low on the wealthy.

Q. Which kinds of institutions tend to produce these norms of affluence? In what ways does the presence of lower-income students mitigate the conservatizing effects of a campus culture of affluence?

Institutions that matriculate a majority of students from the top ten percent of the nation’s household income distribution produce these norms. The effect is especially strong in campuses where a large majority of students indicate on a survey that they are attending college for financial gain. One implication of this research is that the problem is not only unfair access to lower-income students; it is also the disproportionate absence of middle-income students. Many four-year schools consist mostly of affluent students.

Q. Several of the current presidential candidates have advocated expanding access to college, from changing student loan structures to making public universities free. What kinds of public and institutional policies could address the increase of norms of affluence on campuses? How might such policies affect social inequality overall?

Financially-strapped schools are admitting more students who can pay full tuition in order to make up the loss in revenue from government support. Financially-healthy schools are admitting more affluent students because those are often the students whose parents cultivate children with the desired mix of extra-curricular and academic achievements, not to mention paying thousands of dollars for tutoring and SAT classes.

Colleges may want to ask themselves if there are ways to return higher education to one of its primary reasons for existing — to provide equal opportunity in a democratic society. Otherwise, they become places where privilege replicates itself not only demographically but in the privilege-justifying attitudes of the elite. Candidates should advocate for more funding for higher education that targets the lower and middle classes. That means keeping tuition high, with percentage increases tethered to the percentage increase in the income and wealth of the top ten percent—because the top ten percent can afford to pay it—while providing enough financial aid to make the net cost of college affordable to everyone else.

Government has reduced funding for higher education too much, and it must recognize the damage it has done and restore as much funding as possible. Vassar’s president recently published an excellent op-ed in the New York Times making exactly this point. Vassar has been a leader in this regard, so it is possible to make good progress on this issue. It will also take a willingness on the part of affluent people to see that they are unfairly benefitting from their private resources at the expense of 90% of Americans. When we hire a college tutor for $3,000 but resist a tax increase that would send that $3,000 to a brilliant future medical researcher, we are undermining our collective well-being. If colleges put less emphasis on achievements that money can buy, they would allow affluent people to more easily forego spending discretionary income to buy advantages for their children.


RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


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