The editorial board at the Minnesota Daily has apparently discovered that in terms of college admissions it helps a lot to have money. This is the wrong concern. According to the editorial:

Indeed, 16.6 percent of public baccalaureate institutions explicitly say they are paying more attention to ability to pay when making their admissions decisions. These aren’t private universities who may have a looser set of values; these are public universities supposedly committed to democratic access to education, regardless of ability to pay.

More disturbing than simply targeting recruiting efforts at rich prospective students, a tenth of four-year schools admit that the “full pay” students they accept have worse grades and test scores than those with less ability to pay. In these schools, wealth has become a criterion of admission.

This behavior betrays the vision of education as a democratic institution and a right for everyone with sufficient merit. College admissions everywhere should be need-blind and based on merit only.

That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Rich students have no need for additional advantages, the editorial summarizes.

This special consideration for reasonably affluent students sounds like a scandal, but it isn’t. It’s actually a symptom of a much more serious problem.

In public colleges the affluent applicants don’t get special preferences out of some evil academic desire to protect the rich. Nor is this preference even a result of the insidious power of the rich.

The trouble with this discussion is that “full paying” students now become some sort of synonym for rich students. This is the problem. “Full paying” students in public colleges shouldn’t have to be rich people at all. The reason colleges pay attention to parent finances now is because they simply to don’t receive enough money from the legislature to operate. They fill gaps by enrolling students who contribute more money.

All this focus on “rich kids” detracts from what’s really going on. Rich kids are just a revenue source. The public colleges want more affluent students because such students pay tuition.

But public colleges exist to provide a high quality science and liberal arts education for the residents of the state to access inexpensively. The inexpensive part is the point. In the history of American state universities many students attending such schools were poor and many were rich. The differences were obvious but the differences didn’t prevent anyone from receiving an education; the education itself was cheap. There was no need to target people who could pay “full price” because full price used to be relatively low.

Less money from the state means the colleges seek out the one source that can continue to be a steady stream. Sure, college admissions everywhere should be need-blind and based on merit only. More importantly, however, tuition should be low so that colleges can afford such a policy.

There’s no need to be “need-blind” if the price is so cheap that no one needs help. In terms of state universities, no one should “need’ extra support to pay tuition, not if the states want to promote education anyway.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer