Over the past seven years, I received more than $330,000 of need-based educational financial aid. It has taken me from middle-class Ohio to two of the most elite institutions in American education, giving me a permanent marker of upper-class status and a near guarantee of material comfort.
I grew up attending public schools in Iowa and Ohio until increasing frustration with my schooling led my family and me to reply to a flier about boarding schools. Up until then, I believed boarding schools only existed in England; I had never heard of "Exeter" or "Andover." I applied to four schools and chose to attend the Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts, despite knowing essentially nothing about the place, because it gave me full need-based aid.
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I do not come from a low-income family; for most of my childhood, my family's income was close to that of the median American household, which was $56,516 last year. However, at Middlesex, I had one of the lowest family incomes in the entire school: More than 70 percent of the student body did not receive any need-based aid at a school that cost over $50,000 a year for boarding students and over $40,000 a year for day students.
Many students came from families with storied histories. Many others, while not necessarily the kids of CEOs, had parents who were financiers, doctors, lawyers, professors, etc. In my senior speech to the school — part critique and part love letter — I talked about the culture clash between my upbringing in the Midwest and my years at an institution that has long been part of the Northeast's WASP culture.
After graduating from high school, I attended Stanford, which has an endowment of more than $20 billion and need-blind admission for domestic students, and where about half of the undergraduate student body qualifies for need-based financial aid. The median family income for students is $167,500 — more than three times the national average — and 52 percent of the undergraduate student body comes from families with incomes in the top 10 percent of the American income spectrum. Among elite universities, these numbers are essentially representative.
Much recent political attention has been paid to America's declining social mobility. A team of researchers estimated that while about 90 percent of children born in 1940 earned more than their parents, only 50 percent of children born in the 1980s did the same. Meanwhile, American income inequality has increased dramatically. The wages of the top 5 percent — and especially the top 1 percent — have skyrocketed, while the wages of the bottom half have stagnated or even lost ground.