Malcolm Gladwell has built a career on making cute, thought-provoking, sometimes specious connections between the seemingly unconnected. By analyzing, say, the heights of Fortune 500 CEOs or the birthdates of professional hockey players, the author tries to reveal our unspoken preferences and prejudices, and to highlight in a new way where we are going wrong.

And he was too cute by half last week when, on his new podcast, he criticized Bowdoin College in Brunswick for offering high-quality food in its cafeterias, supposedly at the expense of offering aid to low-income students.

In doing so, Gladwell pointed to what is certainly an escalating problem in higher education – the relative dearth of low-income students. However, that problem isn’t caused by the menu at Bowdoin.


In the podcast, Gladwell compares Bowdoin with Vassar College, a similar liberal arts school in Poughkeepsie, New York. Twenty-two percent of the students at Vassar qualify for need-based Pell grants, compared to only 14 percent at Bowdoin. The difference, according to Gladwell, is that Bowdoin has a top-flight food service program, while Vassar, apparently, serves barely edible scraps, using the savings to reach out to low-income students.

Gladwell doesn’t mention – or never knew – that food service at Bowdoin is self-supporting, paid for by the students who use it, and that by one expert’s estimation, the total funding for food service, if shifted, would help only about 11 students a year.


He also doesn’t note that Bowdoin is one of the few colleges remaining that uses need-blind admissions, ensuring that admission decisions aren’t based on which students can pay, and that it doesn’t require loans as part of aid packages.

Bowdoin’s PR staff made those points in the school’s blistering response to Gladwell.

But they didn’t make this one – Bowdoin’s share of Pell-eligible students is right around average for similar schools, part of a worsening trend that threatens to exacerbate the stark inequality already at play in the United States. Almost across the board, the country’s top institutions of higher education are failing to attract students from poor families.


According to a recent Jack Kent Cooke Foundation study, 72 percent of the students at America’s most competitive institutions of higher learning come from the wealthiest 25 percent of the population, while only 3 percent come from the poorest 25 percent.

Part of the problem is informational. Only about 23 percent of high-performing low-income students even apply to a selective school.


Better outreach would help – simply putting an admissions packet in a student’s hand increases the likelihood they will apply.

But the problem is also institutional. Low-income students often cannot afford to take test preparation classes, participate in extracurricular activities, or even visit the schools in question, all making them lesser candidates for admission.

What’s more, colleges and universities, particularly public schools that have seen their funding cut, need to attract students who can afford to pay full tuition.

This need is only made more dire by the “amenities arms race,” in which colleges build larger and more opulent living and recreational facilities in order to attract students, driving up debt.

Something is needed to counteract those perverse incentives. Increased funding for public colleges and universities would help, as would a requirement for schools to disclose the income breakdown of their student body.

Perhaps then they would be shamed into admitting more low-income students, by implementing, like Bowdoin, need-blind admissions, or by giving preference to poor students, just as preference is already given to athletes and the children of alumni.

Those are real solutions, unlike making Bowdoin switch from pesto chicken pizza to Salisbury steak.

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