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Data reveals one in 10 BU students comes from wealthy top one percent


A recent study based on anonymous tax data revealed that more than 10 percent of Boston University’s students come from families in the top one percent of U.S. families, while 20 percent come from the bottom 60 percent combined.

The study, published in The New York Times’ The Upshot, was conducted by a group of independent researchers at the Equality of Opportunity Project, a group aims at studying upward income mobility, according to its website.

The data revealed that the median income of BU students’ households is $141,000, with 61 percent of students coming from the top 20 percent.

Kevin Quealy, a journalist at The Upshot who helped work on the story, said the ultimate goal of the report is trying to answer the age-old question of the American dream: “is it possible that you can be poor and become rich?”

“Instead of surveying people, which is very expensive, they got access to anonymous IRS records that they were able to ask questions on a larger scale than anyone has been able to do,” Quealy said.

Quealy said the access to that data has allowed them to ask further questions about certain factors that might influence a person’s economic mobility, such as zip code or where they attend college.

The study did find good news for students who are wondering whether the cost of college will pay off.

“Poor kids who get a college degree move right up the income ladder,” Quealy said. “We thought that was hugely newsworthy.”

Students who attend BU have a median income of $62,000 at age 34, and students from the bottom fifth of incomes as students have a 50 percent chance of moving to the top fifth as adults, according to the data.

But still, Quealy said the study proved something “that a lot of people knew already.”

“We knew a lot of fancy schools had a lot of rich people in them, but now we have data on it,” he said. “That is crazy that we actually know that. I think this information and reporting is really important, just to make this kind of thing known so that schools, alumni and researchers can decide for themselves whether it’s a good or bad thing.”

Ian Hopeman, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, said he thinks the loans that low-income students may need in order to attend BU prevent some from attending.

“Due to the truly whopping size of the debt you’ll accumulate here, students are probably pretty unlikely to shoulder that debt unless they feel they have someone they can fall back on, somewhere to go if everything fails, for most people this is probably their families,” Hopeman said. “If you’re in the lower economic percentiles, that safety net won’t feel as safe.”

Of the May 2016 graduating class, the median debt of BU undergraduates who have accumulated student debt is $30,000, BU spokesperson Colin Riley said.

Many students have pointed out that even after a student is accepted to BU, it can be hard to make ends meet while in school.

Ava Marinelli, a junior in CAS, said that while she expects to struggle with debt post-graduation, she knows many students who have had harder struggles while attending BU.

“Many of my friends have forgone books or groceries because of school-related costs,” Marinelli said. “I think the university should be doing more to reduce costs. President [Robert] Brown doesn’t need a salary as big as he earns. Professors in many disciplines that don’t change don’t need to be issuing brand new edition textbooks when older ones give the same information.”

Additionally, Marinelli said she thinks that students from lower income tiers at the university do not receive the support they need while in school.

“Many end up feeling alienated, unsupported and saddled with so much debt that they can’t or won’t continue in such an environment,” she said.

Riley said he does not see a basis for allegations that BU isn’t doing enough to lower its costs.

“In fact, BU has kept its annual tuition increases at a percentage below the national average for similar institutions for more than a decade,” Riley said. “That is an exceptional record that is probably unmatched by any peer institution.”

Riley added that the study’s data showed BU toward the middle of its peer institutions.

“That speaks for itself,” he said.

According to data released by BU’s Financial Assistance office, it offered an average of $54,600 in need-based financial aid to students from families with a household income of $49,999 or less to applicants in 2015-16.

The university also made changes to its financial aid policy earlier this year after meeting with students from the #PoorAtAPrivateUniversity group, such as grant assistance, which ensures that students will not see a decrease in their financial aid amount before graduation. This policy does not currently account for inflation, but keeps grant amounts the same, as reported by The Daily Free Press.

BU statistics professor Mark Kon added that there is another factor in accessibility to elite colleges for students from low income families  — the education they receive before attending.

“It is still an unfortunate fact, in our society, that students from higher income backgrounds tend statistically to have higher standardized test scores and grades as they go through college applications,” Kon said. “Our society as a whole has made some great strides in trying to change this situation, but more needs to be done.”

Kon said schools that use performance-based admissions, such as BU, will therefore not have equal income distribution.

“This is not a problem just for Boston University, but in fact a problem for many schools with tough admissions requirements, and it is one that America as a whole, as well as Boston University, have to work very hard to solve,” he said. “Until the time that real equality of performance is achieved across all income classes, it is a problem that we will be continuing to deal with.”

Still, others, such as Ellis Martin, a sophomore in CAS, do not see the elite nature of BU as an issue.

“Education is education,” Martin said. “One percenters can afford prestige, legacy, tradition. It’s sad that some can afford better connections, but in the long haul the acquisition of knowledge, regardless of origin, is invaluable.”

Martin said he does not think the cost of a university necessarily equates to its quality.

“Society has equated high cost universities with better education, but really the emphasis is on keeping the well-off connected to other well-off blokes,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with that really, and it’s not like this issue is new. Old money is old money. New money isn’t old money.”

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  1. It’s awesome to see the DFP utilizing data more. Powerful stats.

  2. As a student from a family where it at one point wasn’t unusual to have an income of 10,000 or less in a year, I can confirm that it is a Herculean task to afford everything necessary to survive and succeed at BU. I personally had been met with sharp criticism from professors in my very first semester here when I asked about alternative options for gaining access to materials. I was told I was irresponsible, and clearly not ready for a university education, if I didn’t have the funds on hand already. At the time, I was working two jobs in addition to a full course load. Every housing deposit is a scramble to beat the clock. I believe that the financial stress made my freshman year far worse than it had to be. And still, there is an enormous amount of pressure to succeed, because if I don’t in the time allotted by my scholarship, I return home saddled with debt and unable to move forward. Because of where my hometown is, I would likely have trouble finding work, and I would have to live at home, likely unable to even fully contribute to rent. For people in my situation and much worse ones, this is do or die. It is succeed, or watch your family suffer because of your failure. And it is almost impossible to explain to people who have never had to think this way because they have that cushion to fall back on.