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Public and Private Elite Colleges See Increase in Wealthy Attendees

By David Leonhardt

The New York Times -- ANN ARBOR, Mich.

At prestigious universities around the country, more and more students from upper-income families are edging out those from the middle class, according to university data. The change is fast becoming one of the biggest issues in higher education.

More members of this year’s freshman class at the University of Michigan have parents making at least $200,000 a year than have parents making less than the national median of about $53,000, according to a survey of Michigan students. At the most selective private universities across the country, more fathers of freshmen are doctors than are hourly workers, teachers, clergy members, farmers or members of the military -- combined.

Experts say the change in the student population is a result of both steep tuition increases and the phenomenal effort many wealthy parents put into preparing their children to apply to the best schools. It is easy to see here, where BMW 3-series sedans are everywhere and students pay up to $800 a month to live off campus, enough to rent an entire house in parts of Michigan.

Some universities are starting to take action. Officials long accustomed to discussing racial diversity are instead taking steps to improve economic diversity. They say they are worried that their universities are reproducing social advantage instead of serving as an engine of mobility.

“It’s very much an issue of fundamental fairness,” Lawrence H. Summers, the president of Harvard and a former Treasury secretary, said in an interview. “An important purpose of institutions like Harvard is to give everybody a shot at the American dream.”

The University of Maryland recently said it would no longer ask students from families making less than $21,000 a year to take out loans, and instead would give them scholarships to cover tuition. Officials at Harvard, UNC, and UVA all recently announced similar, even more generous policies.