Socioeconomic Diversity is Stagnating at Columbia - Columbia Daily Spectator
Socioeconomic Diversity is Stagnating at Columbia
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By Janie Haseman

Edited by Maya Perry

Illustration by Daniela Casalino

There are more students at Columbia from the top one percent of America’s income levels than from the bottom 20 percent. The median income of students’ families at Columbia, as of around 2012, was over $150,000. And while only the Columbia administration has data on these indicators in the years since, recent statistics suggest that level of socioeconomic diversity has not changed since 2009.

Columbia has made clear its commitment to socioeconomic diversity—the Columbia College and School of Engineering and Applied Science financial aid website states that “Columbia is committed to creating and supporting a community diverse in every way,” including socioeconomic background. And in 2013, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger stated in the Chronicle of Higher Education that Columbia had successfully achieved “high levels” of socioeconomic diversity and was proud to have done so.

However, an analysis by The Eye has revealed that the median family income of CC and SEAS students receiving financial aid has remained unchanged for the past nine years, as has these students’ average cost of attendance. Levels of socioeconomic diversity at Columbia have stagnated—are these levels those which Columbia considers successful?

We analyzed the past nine years of financial aid data—this is what we found.

Columbia grants financial aid to families making up to $200,000. This year, about 50 percent of CC and SEAS students received financial aid.

The median income of families of students awarded financial aid in 2017 was $97,020.

This means that 75 percent of Columbia students come from families with incomes of $97,020 or more. The median household income in the U.S. is just under $60,000 per year, or almost $40,000 less than what 75 percent of Columbia students’ families make.

In other words, 75 percent of Columbia students come from families in the top 28th percentile of household incomes in America…

...while only 25 percent come from the bottom 72 percent of income levels.

The remarkable thing is that the median income of students receiving financial aid hasn’t changed—adjusted for inflation, it has remained almost constant over the past nine years.

The percent of students receiving financial aid at CC and SEAS and the percent of students on Pell Grants at these schools has remained largely unchanged as well.

Columbia’s financial aid spending has increased by 45 percent since 2010, but this is almost entirely due to the increased cost of tuition and growing number of students attending. Students receiving financial aid in 2017 have a net cost, on average, of only $1,900 less than they did in 2009.

receiving aid: 50%

Students not
receiving aid: 50%

In short, socioeconomic diversity at Columbia has stagnated. Rich students still far outnumber poor ones—yet the number of applicants for financial aid, and the median income of those receiving it, has remained astoundingly unchanged over the past nine years.

Why hasn’t socioeconomic diversity increased at Columbia?

It is well-known that nationally, fewer low-income students apply to—or have the resources to be prepared to attend—selective schools as compared to students whose families make more. For various reasons, this disparity between the two groups tends to remain persistent over time. But Dr. Michael Bastedo, director of the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan, notes that national trends probably don’t have as much of an impact on Columbia’s ability to increase the number of low-income students on campus.

“Columbia certainly has lots of qualified applicants, so I don’t think that qualified applicants [would] be a problem. It’s about making this an institutional priority.”

One potential signal that increasing socioeconomic diversity is not such a priority is the rising number of international students at Columbia. Since 2002, the share of “non-resident alien” students has more than doubled; from 2009 to this past fall, it increased from 11 to 17 percent. This is in part a likely result, according to Bastedo, of more international students applying; additionally, Bollinger has committed to a more global student body. However, since Columbia is need-aware in accepting international students, it gives them the opportunity to admit students whom they know will pay full tuition—which can in turn keep the number of students paying the sticker price consistent.

This isn’t a phenomenon unique to Columbia—in the face of decreasing government funding, many public state schools increased the number of out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition than in-state students, to maintain university revenue. Yet Columbia’s position as one of the best-funded universities in the U.S. leaves it in a unique position.

“Do I think Columbia is an institution with enough wealth to be able to move the needle on this? Yes,” Bastedo says. “Do I think there’s a lot of competing priorities for those funds? Yes.” If the institution prioritizes financial aid in the budget, socioeconomic diversity will increase, he said. If not, it will stagnate. While each Columbia school and its faculty have separate pools of funding, they must pay a “tax” to Columbia’s central administration. In recent years, this tax has increased—particularly in order to fund Columbia’s new Manhattanville campus. This makes it harder for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the budgetary unit of which CC is a part, to increase the amount of money it is directing towards greater financial aid funding.

In the words of Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, “Columbia could do better.” But until the University prioritizes socioeconomic diversity to a greater degree, this diversity will continue to stand still.


Have a question about where we got the data and why we used the numbers we did? See the FAQ here, leave a comment below, or contact us with your question.