On a Christian Mission to the Top (Preaching to the Elite)
FOURTH ARTICLE IN THE SERIES OF FIVE
The New York Times
May 22, 2005 Sunday
For a while last winter, Tim Havens, a recent graduate of Brown University and now an evangelical missionary there, had to lead his morning prayer group in a stairwell of the campus chapel. That was because workers were clattering in to remake the lower floor for a display of American Indian art, and a Buddhist student group was chanting in the small sanctuary upstairs.
Like most of the Ivy League universities, Brown was founded by Protestant ministers as an expressly Christian college. But over the years it gradually shed its religious affiliation and became a secular institution, as did the other Ivies. In addition to Buddhists, the Brown chaplain's office now recognizes ''heathen/pagan'' as a ''faith community.''
But these days evangelical students like those in Mr. Havens's prayer group are becoming a conspicuous presence at Brown. Of a student body of 5,700, about 400 participate in one of three evangelical student groups -- more than the number of active mainline Protestants, the campus chaplain says. And these students are in the vanguard of a larger social shift not just on campuses but also at golf resorts and in boardrooms; they are part of an expanding beachhead of evangelicals in the American elite.
The growing power and influence of evangelical Christians is manifest everywhere these days, from the best-seller lists to the White House, but in fact their share of the general population has not changed much in half a century. Most pollsters agree that people who identify themselves as white evangelical Christians make up about a quarter of the population, just as they have for decades.
What has changed is the class status of evangelicals -- Protestants who emphasize the authority of the Bible, the importance of a ''born-again'' conversion experience and spreading the faith. In 1929, the theologian H. Richard Niebuhr described born-again Christianity as the ''religion of the disinherited.'' But over the last 40 years, evangelicals have pulled steadily closer in income and education to mainline Protestants in the historically affluent establishment denominations. In the process they have overturned the old social pecking order in which ''Episcopalian,'' for example, was a code word for upper class, and ''fundamentalist'' or ''evangelical'' shorthand for lower. Evangelicals are now increasingly likely to be college graduates and in the top income brackets. Evangelical C.E.O.'s pray together on monthly conference calls, evangelical investment bankers study the Bible over lunch on Wall Street, and deep-pocketed evangelical donors gather at golf courses for conferences restricted to those who give more than $200,000 annually to Christian causes.
Their growing wealth and education help explain the new influence of evangelicals in American culture and politics. Their buying power fuels the booming market for Christian books, music and films. Their rising income has paid for construction of vast megachurches in suburbs across the country. Their charitable contributions finance dozens of mission agencies, religious broadcasters and international service groups.
On The Chronicle of Philanthropy's latest list of the 400 top charities, Campus Crusade for Christ, an evangelical student group, raised more from private donors than the Boy Scouts of America, the Public Broadcasting Service and Easter Seals.
Now a few affluent evangelicals are directing their attention and money at some of the tallest citadels of the secular elite: Ivy League universities. Three years ago a group of evangelical Ivy League alumni formed the Christian Union, an organization intended to ''reclaim the Ivy League for Christ,'' according to its fund-raising materials, and to ''shape the hearts and minds of many thousands who graduate from these schools and who become the elites in other American cultural institutions.''
The Christian Union has bought and maintains new evangelical student centers at Brown, Princeton and Cornell, and has plans to establish a center on every Ivy League campus. In April, 450 students, alumni and supporters met in Princeton for an ''Ivy League Congress on Faith and Action.'' A keynote speaker was Charles W. Colson, the born-again Watergate felon turned evangelical thinker.
Matt Bennett, founder of the Christian Union, told the conference, ''I love these universities -- Princeton and all the others, my alma mater, Cornell -- but it really grieves me and really hurts me to think of where they are now.''
The Christian Union's immediate goal, he said, was to recruit campus missionaries. ''What is happening now is good,'' Mr. Bennett said, ''but it is like a finger in the dike of keeping back the flood of immorality.''
And trends in the Ivy League today could shape the culture for decades to come, he said. ''So many leaders come out of these campuses. Seven of the nine Supreme Court justices are Ivy League grads; four of the seven Massachusetts Supreme Court justices; Christian ministry leaders; so many presidents, as you know; leaders of business -- they are everywhere.''
He added, ''If we are going to change the world, we have got, by God's power, to see these campuses radically changed.''
An Outsider on Campus
Mr. Havens, who graduated from Brown last year, is the kind of missionary the Christian Union hopes to enlist. An evangelical from what he calls a ''solidly middle class'' family in the Midwest, he would have been an anomaly at Brown a couple of generations ago. He applied there, he said, out of a sense of ''nonconformity'' and despite his mother's preference that he attend a Christian college.
''She just was nervous about, and rightfully so, what was going to happen to me freshman year,'' Mr. Havens recalled.
When he arrived at Brown, in Providence, R.I., Mr. Havens was astounded to find that the biggest campus social event of the fall was the annual SexPowerGod dance, sponsored by the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Alliance and advertised with dining-hall displays depicting pairs of naked men or women. ''Why do they have to put God in the name?'' he said. ''It seems kind of disrespectful.''
Mr. Havens found himself a double outsider of sorts. In addition to being devoted to his faith, he was a scholarship student at a university where half the students can afford $45,000 in tuition and fees without recourse to financial aid and where, he said, many tend to ''spend money like water.''
But his modest means did not stand out as much as his efforts to guard his morals. He did not drink, and he almost never cursed. And he was determined to stay ''pure'' until marriage, though he did not lack for attention from female students. Just as his mother feared, Mr. Havens, a broad-shouldered former wrestler with tousled brown hair and a guileless smile, wavered some his freshman year and dated several classmates.
''I was just like, 'Oh, I can get this girl to like me,''' he recalled. '''Oh, she likes me; she's cute.' And so it was a lot of fairly short and meaningless relationships. It was pretty destructive.''
In his sophomore year, though, his evangelical a cappella singing group, a Christian twist on an old Ivy League tradition, interceded. With its support, he rededicated himself to serving God, and by his senior year he was running his own Bible-study group, hoping to inoculate first-year students against the temptations he had faced. They challenged one another, Mr. Havens said, ''committing to remain sexually pure, both in a physical sense and in avoiding pornography and ogling women and like that.''
Mr. Havens is now living in a house owned and supported by the Christian Union and is trying to reach not just other evangelicals but nonbelievers as well.
Prayers in the Boardrooms
The Christian Union is the brainchild of Mr. Bennett, 40, who earned bachelor's and master's degrees at Cornell and later directed the Campus Crusade for Christ at Princeton. Mr. Bennett, tall and soft-spoken with a Texas drawl that waxes and wanes depending on the company he is in, said he got the idea during a 40-day water-and-juice fast, when he heard God speaking to him one night in a dream.
''He was speaking to me very strongly that he wanted to see an increasing and dramatic spiritual revival in a place like Princeton,'' Mr. Bennett said.
While working for Campus Crusade, Mr. Bennett discovered that it was hard to recruit evangelicals to minister to the elite colleges of the Northeast because the environment was alien to them and the campuses often far from their homes. He also found that the evangelical ministries were hobbled without adequate salaries to attract professional staff members and without centers of their own where students could gather, socialize and study the Bible. Jews had Hillel Houses, and Roman Catholics had Newman Centers.
He thought evangelicals should have their own houses, too, and began a furious round of fund-raising to buy or build some. An early benefactor was his twin brother, Monty, who had taken over the Dallas hotel empire their father built from a single Holiday Inn and who donated a three-story Victorian in a neighborhood near Brown.
To raise more money, Matt Bennett has followed a grapevine of affluent evangelicals around the country, winding up even in places where evangelicals would have been a rarity just a few decades ago. In Manhattan, for example, he visited Wall Street boardrooms and met with the founder of Socrates in the City, a roundtable for religious intellectuals that gathers monthly at places like the Algonquin Hotel and the Metropolitan Club.
Those meetings introduced him to an even more promising pool of like-minded Christians, the New Canaan Group, a Friday morning prayer breakfast typically attended by more than a hundred investment bankers and other professionals. The breakfasts started in the Connecticut home of a partner in Goldman, Sachs but grew so large that they had to move to a local church. Like many other evangelicals, some members attend churches that adhere to evangelical doctrine but that remain affiliated with mainline denominations.
Other donors to the Christian Union are members of local elites across the Bible Belt. Not long ago, for example, Mr. Bennett paid a visit to Montgomery, Ala., for lunch with Julian L. McPhillips Jr., a wealthy Princeton alumnus and the managing partner of a local law firm. Mr. Bennett, wearing an orange Princeton tie, said he wanted to raise enough money for the Christian Union to hire someone to run a ''healing ministry'' for students with depression, eating disorders or drug or alcohol addiction.
Mr. McPhillips, who shares Mr. Bennett's belief in the potential of faith healing, remarked that he had once cured an employee's migraine headaches just by praying for him. ''We joke in my office that we don't need health insurance,'' he told Mr. Bennett before writing a check for $1,000.
Mr. Bennett's database has grown to about 5,000 names gathered by word of mouth alone. They are mostly Ivy League graduates whose regular alumni contributions he hopes to channel into the Christian Union. And these Ivy League evangelicals, in turn, are just a small fraction of the large number of their affluent fellow believers.
Gaining on the Mainline
Their commitment to their faith is confounding a long-held assumption that, like earlier generations of Baptists or Pentecostals, prosperous evangelicals would abandon their religious ties or trade them for membership in establishment churches. Instead, they have kept their traditionalist beliefs, and their churches have even attracted new members from among the well-off.
Meanwhile, evangelical Protestants are pulling closer to their mainline counterparts in class and education. As late as 1965, for example, a white mainline Protestant was two and a half times as likely to have a college degree as a white evangelical, according to an analysis by Prof. Corwin E. Smidt, a political scientist at Calvin College, an evangelical institution in Grand Rapids, Mich. But by 2000, a mainline Protestant was only 65 percent more likely to have the same degree. And since 1985, the percentage of incoming freshmen at highly selective private universities who said they were born-again also rose by half, to 11 percent or 12 percent each year from 7.3 percent, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.
To many evangelical Christians, the reason for their increasing worldly success and cultural influence is obvious: God's will at work. Some also credit leaders like the midcentury intellectual Carl F.H. Henry, who helped found a large and influential seminary, a glossy evangelical Christian magazine and the National Association of Evangelicals, a powerful umbrella group that now includes 51 denominations. Dr. Henry and his followers implored believers to look beyond their churches and fight for a place in the American mainstream.
There were also demographic forces at work, beginning with the G.I. Bill, which sent a pioneering generation of evangelicals to college. Probably the greatest boost to the prosperity of evangelicals as a group came with the Sun Belt expansion of the 1970's and the Texas oil boom, which brought new wealth and businesses to the regions where evangelical churches had been most heavily concentrated.
The most striking example of change in how evangelicals see themselves and their place in the world may be the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination. It was founded in Hot Springs, Ark., in 1914 by rural and working-class Christians who believed that the Holy Spirit had moved them to speak in tongues. Shunned by established churches, they became a sect of outsiders, and their preachers condemned worldly temptations like dancing, movies, jewelry and swimming in public pools. But like the Southern Baptists and other conservative denominations, the Assemblies gradually dropped their separatist strictures as their membership prospered and spread.
As the denomination grew, Assemblies preachers began speaking not only of heavenly rewards but also of the material blessings God might provide in this world. The notion was controversial in some evangelical circles but became widespread nonetheless, and it made the Assemblies' faith more compatible with an upwardly mobile middle class.
By the 1970's, Assemblies churches were sprouting up in affluent suburbs across the country. Recent surveys by Margaret Poloma, a historian at the University of Akron in Ohio, found Assemblies members more educated and better off than the general public.
As they flourished, evangelical entrepreneurs and strivers built a distinctly evangelical business culture of prayer meetings, self-help books and business associations. In some cities outside the Northeast, evangelical business owners list their names in Christian yellow pages.
The rise of evangelicals has also coincided with the gradual shift of most of them from the Democratic Party to the Republican and their growing political activism. The conservative Christian political movement seldom developed in poor, rural Bible Belt towns. Instead, its wellsprings were places like the Rev. Ed Young's booming megachurch in suburban Houston or the Rev. Timothy LaHaye's in Orange County, Calif., where evangelical professionals and businesspeople had the wherewithal to push back against the secular culture by organizing boycotts, electing school board members and lobbying for conservative judicial appointments.
'A Bunch of Heathens'
Mr. Havens, the Brown missionary, is part of the upsurge of well-educated born-again Christians. He grew up in one of the few white households in a poor black neighborhood of St. Louis, where his parents had moved to start a church, which failed to take off. Mr. Havens's father never graduated from college. After being laid off from his job at a marketing company two years ago, he now works in an insurance company's software and systems department. Tim Havens's mother home-schooled the family's six children for at least a few years each.
Mr. Havens got through Brown on scholarships and loans, and at graduation was $25,000 in debt. To return to campus for his missionary year and pay his expenses, he needed to raise an additional $36,000, and on the advice of Geoff Freeman, the head of the Brown branch of Campus Crusade, he did his fund-raising in St. Louis.
''It is easy to sell New England in the Midwest,'' as Mr. Freeman put it later. Midwesterners, he said, see New Englanders as ''a bunch of heathens.''
So Mr. Havens drove home each day from a summer job at a stone supply warehouse to work the phone from his cluttered childhood bedroom. He told potential donors that many of the American-born students at Brown had never even been to church, to say nothing of the students from Asia or the Middle East. ''In a sense, it is pre-Christian,'' he explained.
Among his family's friends, however, encouragement was easier to come by than cash. As the summer came to a close, Mr. Havens was still $6,000 short. He decided to give himself a pay cut and go back to Brown with what he had raised, trusting God to take care of his needs just as he always had when money seemed scarce during college.
''God owns the cattle on a thousand hills,'' he often told himself. ''God has plenty of money.''
Thanks to the Christian Union, Mr. Havens's present quarters as a ministry intern at Brown are actually more upscale than his home in St. Louis. On Friday nights, he is a host for a Bible-study and dinner party for 70 or 80 Christian students, who serve themselves heaping plates of pasta before breaking into study groups. Afterward, they regroup in the living room for board games and goofy improvisation contests, all free of profanity and even double entendre.
Lately, though, Mr. Havens has been contemplating steps that would take him away from Brown and campus ministry. After a chaste romance -- ''I didn't kiss her until I asked her to marry me,'' he said -- he recently became engaged to a missionary colleague, Liz Chalmers. He has been thinking about how to support the children they hope to have.
And he has been considering the example of his future father-in-law, Daniel Chalmers, a Baptist missionary to the Philippines who ended up building power plants there and making a small fortune. Mr. Chalmers has been a steady donor to Christian causes, and he bought a plot of land in Oregon, where he plans to build a retreat center.
''God has always used wealthy people to help the church,'' Mr. Havens said. He pointed out that in the Bible, rich believers helped support the apostles, just as donors to the Christian Union are investing strategically in the Ivy League today.
With those examples and his own father in mind, Mr. Havens chose medicine over campus ministry. He scored well on his medical school entrance exams and, after another year at Brown, he will head to the St. Louis University School of Medicine. At the Christian Union conference in April, he was pleased to hear doctors talk about praying with their patients and traveling as medical missionaries.
He is looking forward to having the money a medical degree can bring, and especially to putting his children through college without the scholarships and part-time jobs he needed. But whether he becomes rich, he said, ''will depend on how much I keep.''
Like other evangelicals of his generation, he means to take his faith with him as he makes his way in the world. He said his roommates at Brown had always predicted that he would ''sell out'' -- loosen up about his faith and adopt their taste for new cars, new clothes and the other trappings of the upper class.
He didn't at Brown and he thinks he never will.
''So far so good,'' he said. But he admitted, ''I don't have any money yet.''
ABOUT THE SERIES
These articles are the fourth part of a series examining the role of social class in America today. A team of reporters spent more than a year exploring ways that class -- defined as a combination of income, education, wealth and occupation -- influences destiny in a country that likes to think of itself as a land of unbounded opportunity.
Tuesday: A Dollar Today, Less Tomorrow
The College Dropout Boom
FIFTH ARTICLE IN THE SERIES OF FIVE
The New York Times
May 24, 2005 Tuesday
One of the biggest decisions Andy Blevins has ever made, and one of the few he now regrets, never seemed like much of a decision at all. It just felt like the natural thing to do.
In the summer of 1995, he was moving boxes of soup cans, paper towels and dog food across the floor of a supermarket warehouse, one of the biggest buildings here in southwest Virginia. The heat was brutal. The job had sounded impossible when he arrived fresh off his first year of college, looking to make some summer money, still a skinny teenager with sandy blond hair and a narrow, freckled face.
But hard work done well was something he understood, even if he was the first college boy in his family. Soon he was making bonuses on top of his $6.75 an hour, more money than either of his parents made. His girlfriend was around, and so were his hometown buddies. Andy acted more outgoing with them, more relaxed. People in Chilhowie noticed that.
It was just about the perfect summer. So the thought crossed his mind: maybe it did not have to end. Maybe he would take a break from college and keep working. He had been getting C's and D's, and college never felt like home, anyway.
''I enjoyed working hard, getting the job done, getting a paycheck,'' Mr. Blevins recalled. ''I just knew I didn't want to quit.''
So he quit college instead, and with that, Andy Blevins joined one of the largest and fastest-growing groups of young adults in America. He became a college dropout, though nongraduate may be the more precise term.
Many people like him plan to return to get their degrees, even if few actually do. Almost one in three Americans in their mid-20's now fall into this group, up from one in five in the late 1960's, when the Census Bureau began keeping such data. Most come from poor and working-class families.
The phenomenon has been largely overlooked in the glare of positive news about the country's gains in education. Going to college has become the norm throughout most of the United States, even in many places where college was once considered an exotic destination -- places like Chilhowie (pronounced chill-HOW-ee), an Appalachian hamlet with a simple brick downtown. At elite universities, classrooms are filled with women, blacks, Jews and Latinos, groups largely excluded two generations ago. The American system of higher learning seems to have become a great equalizer.
In fact, though, colleges have come to reinforce many of the advantages of birth. On campuses that enroll poorer students, graduation rates are often low. And at institutions where nearly everyone graduates -- small colleges like Colgate, major state institutions like the University of Colorado and elite private universities like Stanford -- more students today come from the top of the nation's income ladder than they did two decades ago.
Only 41 percent of low-income students entering a four-year college managed to graduate within five years, the Department of Education found in a study last year, but 66 percent of high-income students did. That gap had grown over recent years.''We need to recognize that the most serious domestic problem in the United States today is the widening gap between the children of the rich and the children of the poor,'' Lawrence H. Summers, the president of Harvard, said last year when announcing that Harvard would give full scholarships to all its lowest-income students. ''And education is the most powerful weapon we have to address that problem.''
There is certainly much to celebrate about higher education today. Many more students from all classes are getting four-year degrees and reaping their benefits. But those broad gains mask the fact that poor and working-class students have nevertheless been falling behind; for them, not having a degree remains the norm.
That loss of ground is all the more significant because a college education matters much more now than it once did. A bachelor's degree, not a year or two of courses, tends to determine a person's place in today's globalized, computerized economy. College graduates have received steady pay increases over the past two decades, while the pay of everyone else has risen little more than the rate of inflation.
As a result, despite one of the great education explosions in modern history, economic mobility -- moving from one income group to another over the course of a lifetime -- has stopped rising, researchers say. Some recent studies suggest that it has declined over the last generation.
Put another way, children seem to be following the paths of their parents more than they once did. Grades and test scores, rather than privilege, determine success today, but that success is largely being passed down from one generation to the next. A nation that believes that everyone should have a fair shake finds itself with a kind of inherited meritocracy.
In this system, the students at the best colleges may be diverse -- male and female and of various colors, religions and hometowns -- but they tend to share an upper-middle-class upbringing. An old joke that Harvard's idea of diversity is putting a rich kid from California in the same room as a rich kid from New York is truer today than ever; Harvard has more students from California than it did in years past and just as big a share of upper-income students.
Students like these remain in college because they can hardly imagine doing otherwise. Their parents, understanding the importance of a bachelor's degree, spent hours reading to them, researching school districts and making it clear to them that they simply must graduate from college.
Andy Blevins says that he too knows the importance of a degree, but that he did not while growing up, and not even in his year at Radford University, 66 miles up the Interstate from Chilhowie. Ten years after trading college for the warehouse, Mr. Blevins, 29, spends his days at the same supermarket company. He has worked his way up to produce buyer, earning $35,000 a year with health benefits and a 401(k) plan. He is on a path typical for someone who attended college without getting a four-year degree. Men in their early 40's in this category made an average of $42,000 in 2000. Those with a four-year degree made $65,000.
Still boyish-looking but no longer rail thin, Mr. Blevins says he has many reasons to be happy. He lives with his wife, Karla, and their year-old son, Lucas, in a small blue-and-yellow house at the end of a cul-de-sac in the middle of a stunningly picturesque Appalachian valley. He plays golf with some of the same friends who made him want to stay around Chilhowie.
But he does think about what might have been, about what he could be doing if he had the degree. As it is, he always feels as if he is on thin ice. Were he to lose his job, he says, everything could slip away with it. What kind of job could a guy without a college degree get? One night, while talking to his wife about his life, he used the word ''trapped.''
''Looking back, I wish I had gotten that degree,'' Mr. Blevins said in his soft-spoken lilt. ''Four years seemed like a thousand years then. But I wish I would have just put in my four years.''
Why so many low-income students fall from the college ranks is a question without a simple answer. Many high schools do a poor job of preparing teenagers for college. Many of the colleges where lower-income students tend to enroll have limited resources and offer a narrow range of majors, leaving some students disenchanted and unwilling to continue.
Then there is the cost. Tuition bills scare some students from even applying and leave others with years of debt. To Mr. Blevins, like many other students of limited means, every week of going to classes seemed like another week of losing money -- money that might have been made at a job.
''The system makes a false promise to students,'' said John T. Casteen III, the president of the University of Virginia, himself the son of a Virginia shipyard worker.
Colleges, Mr. Casteen said, present themselves as meritocracies in which academic ability and hard work are always rewarded. In fact, he said, many working-class students face obstacles they cannot overcome on their own.
For much of his 15 years as Virginia's president, Mr. Casteen has focused on raising money and expanding the university, the most prestigious in the state. In the meantime, students with backgrounds like his have become ever scarcer on campus. The university's genteel nickname, the Cavaliers, and its aristocratic sword-crossed coat of arms seem appropriate today. No flagship state university has a smaller proportion of low-income students than Virginia. Just 8 percent of undergraduates last year came from families in the bottom half of the income distribution, down from 11 percent a decade ago.
That change sneaked up on him, Mr. Casteen said, and he has spent a good part of the last year trying to prevent it from becoming part of his legacy. Starting with next fall's freshman class, the university will charge no tuition and require no loans for students whose parents make less than twice the poverty level, or about $37,700 a year for a family of four. The university has also increased financial aid to middle-income students.
To Mr. Casteen, these are steps to remove what he describes as ''artificial barriers'' to a college education placed in the way of otherwise deserving students. Doing so ''is a fundamental obligation of a free culture,'' he said.
But the deterrents to a degree can also be homegrown. Many low-income teenagers know few people who have made it through college. A majority of the nongraduates are young men, and some come from towns where the factory work ethic, to get working as soon as possible, remains strong, even if the factories themselves are vanishing. Whatever the reasons, college just does not feel normal.
''You get there and you start to struggle,'' said Leanna Blevins, Andy's older sister, who did get a bachelor's degree and then went on to earn a Ph.D at Virginia studying the college experiences of poor students. ''And at home your parents are trying to be supportive and say, 'Well, if you're not happy, if it's not right for you, come back home. It's O.K.' And they think they're doing the right thing. But they don't know that maybe what the student needs is to hear them say, 'Stick it out just one semester. You can do it. Just stay there. Come home on the weekend, but stick it out.'''
Today, Ms. Blevins, petite and high-energy, is helping to start a new college a few hours' drive from Chilhowie for low-income students. Her brother said he had daydreamed about attending it and had talked to her about how he might return to college.
For her part, Ms. Blevins says, she has daydreamed about having a life that would seem as natural as her brother's, a life in which she would not feel like an outsider in her hometown. Once, when a high-school teacher asked students to list their goals for the next decade, Ms. Blevins wrote, ''having a college degree'' and ''not being married.''
''I think my family probably thinks I'm liberal,'' Ms. Blevins, who is now married, said with a laugh, ''that I've just been educated too much and I'm gettin' above my raisin'.''
Her brother said that he just wanted more control over his life, not a new one. At a time when many people complain of scattered lives, Mr. Blevins can stand in one spot -- his church parking lot, next to a graveyard -- and take in much of his world. ''That's my parents' house,'' he said one day, pointing to a sliver of roof visible over a hill. ''That's my uncle's trailer. My grandfather is buried here. I'll probably be buried here.''
Taking Class Into Account
Opening up colleges to new kinds of students has generally meant one thing over the last generation: affirmative action. Intended to right the wrongs of years of exclusion, the programs have swelled the number of women, blacks and Latinos on campuses. But affirmative action was never supposed to address broad economic inequities, just the ones that stem from specific kinds of discrimination.
That is now beginning to change. Like Virginia, a handful of other colleges are not only increasing financial aid but also promising to give weight to economic class in granting admissions. They say they want to make an effort to admit more low-income students, just as they now do for minorities and children of alumni.
''The great colleges and universities were designed to provide for mobility, to seek out talent,'' said Anthony W. Marx, president of Amherst College. ''If we are blind to the educational disadvantages associated with need, we will simply replicate these disadvantages while appearing to make decisions based on merit.''
With several populous states having already banned race-based preferences and the United States Supreme Court suggesting that it may outlaw such programs in a couple of decades, the future of affirmative action may well revolve around economics. Polls consistently show that programs based on class backgrounds have wider support than those based on race.
The explosion in the number of nongraduates has also begun to get the attention of policy makers. This year, New York became one of a small group of states to tie college financing more closely to graduation rates, rewarding colleges more for moving students along than for simply admitting them. Nowhere is the stratification of education more vivid than here in Virginia, where Thomas Jefferson once tried, and failed, to set up the nation's first public high schools. At a modest high school in the Tidewater city of Portsmouth, not far from Mr. Casteen's boyhood home, a guidance office wall filled with college pennants does not include one from rarefied Virginia. The colleges whose pennants are up -- Old Dominion University and others that seem in the realm of the possible -- have far lower graduation rates.
Across the country, the upper middle class so dominates elite universities that high-income students, on average, actually get slightly more financial aid from colleges than low-income students do. These elite colleges are so expensive that even many high-income students receive large grants. In the early 1990's, by contrast, poorer students got 50 percent more aid on average than the wealthier ones, according to the College Board, the organization that runs the SAT entrance exams.
At the other end of the spectrum are community colleges, the two-year institutions that are intended to be feeders for four-year colleges. In nearly every one are tales of academic success against tremendous odds: a battered wife or a combat veteran or a laid-off worker on the way to a better life. But over all, community colleges tend to be places where dreams are put on hold.
Most people who enroll say they plan to get a four-year degree eventually; few actually do. Full-time jobs, commutes and children or parents who need care often get in the way. One recent national survey found that about 75 percent of students enrolling in community colleges said they hoped to transfer to a four-year institution. But only 17 percent of those who had entered in the mid-1990's made the switch within five years, according to a separate study. The rest were out working or still studying toward the two-year degree.
''We here in Virginia do a good job of getting them in,'' said Glenn Dubois, chancellor of the Virginia Community College System and himself a community college graduate. ''We have to get better in getting them out.''
'I Wear a Tie Every Day'
College degree or not, Mr. Blevins has the kind of life that many Americans say they aspire to. He fills it with family, friends, church and a five-handicap golf game. He does not sit in traffic commuting to an office park. He does not talk wistfully of a relocated brother or best friend he sees only twice a year. He does not worry about who will care for his son while he works and his wife attends community college to become a physical therapist. His grandparents down the street watch Lucas, just as they took care of Andy and his two sisters when they were children. When Mr. Blevins comes home from work, it is his turn to play with Lucas, tossing him into the air and rolling around on the floor with him and a stuffed elephant.
Mr. Blevins also sings in a quartet called the Gospel Gentlemen. One member is his brother-in-law; another lives on Mr. Blevins's street. In the long white van the group owns, they wend their way along mountain roads on their way to singing dates at local church functions, sometimes harmonizing, sometimes ribbing one another or talking about where to buy golf equipment.
Inside the churches, the other singers often talk to the audience between songs, about God or a grandmother or what a song means to them. Mr. Blevins rarely does, but his shyness fades once he is back in the van with his friends.
At the warehouse, he is usually the first to arrive, around 6:30 in the morning. The grandson of a coal miner, he takes pride, he says, in having moved up to become a supermarket buyer. He decides which bananas, grapes, onions and potatoes the company will sell and makes sure that there are always enough. Most people with his job have graduated from college.
''I'm pretty fortunate to not have a degree but have a job where I wear a tie every day,'' he said.
He worries about how long it will last, though, mindful of what happened to his father, Dwight, a decade ago. A high school graduate, Dwight Blevins was laid off from his own warehouse job and ended up with another one that paid less and offered a smaller pension.
''A lot of places, they're not looking that you're trained in something,'' Andy Blevins said one evening, sitting on his back porch. ''They just want you to have a degree.''
Figuring out how to get one is the core quandary facing the nation's college nongraduates. Many seem to want one. In a New York Times poll, 43 percent of them called it essential to success, while 42 percent of college graduates and 32 percent of high-school dropouts did. This in itself is a change from the days when ''college boy'' was an insult in many working-class neighborhoods. But once students take a break -- the phrase that many use instead of drop out -- the ideal can quickly give way to reality. Family and work can make a return to school seem even harder than finishing it in the first place.
After dropping out of Radford, Andy Blevins enrolled part-time in a community college, trying to juggle work and studies. He lasted a year. From time to time in the decade since, he has thought about giving it another try. But then he has wondered if that would be crazy. He works every third Saturday, and his phone rings on Sundays when there is a problem with the supply of potatoes or apples. ''It never ends,'' he said. ''There's a never a lull.''
To spend more time with Lucas, Mr. Blevins has already cut back on his singing. If he took night classes, he said, when would he ever see his little boy? Anyway, he said, it would take years to get a degree part-time. To him, it is a tug of war between living in the present and sacrificing for the future.
Few Breaks for the Needy
The college admissions system often seems ruthlessly meritocratic. Yes, children of alumni still have an advantage. But many other pillars of the old system -- the polite rejections of women or blacks, the spots reserved for graduates of Choate and Exeter -- have crumbled.
This was the meritocracy Mr. Casteen described when he greeted the parents of freshman in a University of Virginia lecture hall late last summer. Hailing from all 50 states and 52 foreign countries, the students were more intelligent and better prepared than he and his classmates had been, he told the parents in his quiet, deep voice. The class included 17 students with a perfect SAT score.
If anything, children of privilege think that the system has moved so far from its old-boy history that they are now at a disadvantage when they apply, because colleges are trying to diversify their student rolls. To get into a good college, the sons and daughters of the upper middle class often talk of needing a higher SAT score than, say, an applicant who grew up on a farm, in a ghetto or in a factory town. Some state legislators from Northern Virginia's affluent suburbs have argued that this is a form of geographic discrimination and have quixotically proposed bills to outlaw it.
But the conventional wisdom is not quite right. The elite colleges have not been giving much of a break to the low-income students who apply. When William G. Bowen, a former president of Princeton, looked at admissions records recently, he found that if test scores were equal a low-income student had no better chance than a high-income one of getting into a group of 19 colleges, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Williams and Virginia. Athletes, legacy applicants and minority students all got in with lower scores on average. Poorer students did not.
The findings befuddled many administrators, who insist that admissions officers have tried to give poorer applicants a leg up. To emphasize the point, Virginia announced this spring that it was changing its admissions policy from ''need blind'' -- a term long used to assure applicants that they would not be punished for seeking financial aid -- to ''need conscious.'' Administrators at Amherst and Harvard have also recently said that they would redouble their efforts to take into account the obstacles students have overcome.
''The same score reflects more ability when you come from a less fortunate background,'' Mr. Summers, the president of Harvard, said. ''You haven't had a chance to take the test-prep course. You went to a school that didn't do as good a job coaching you for the test. You came from a home without the same opportunities for learning.''
But it is probably not a coincidence that elite colleges have not yet turned this sentiment into action. Admitting large numbers of low-income students could bring clear complications. Too many in a freshman class would probably lower the college's average SAT score, thereby damaging its ranking by U.S. News & World Report, a leading arbiter of academic prestige. Some colleges, like Emory University in Atlanta, have climbed fast in the rankings over precisely the same period in which their percentage of low-income students has tumbled. The math is simple: when a college goes looking for applicants with high SAT scores, it is far more likely to find them among well-off teenagers.
More spots for low-income applicants might also mean fewer for the children of alumni, who make up the fund-raising base for universities. More generous financial aid policies will probably lead to higher tuition for those students who can afford the list price. Higher tuition, lower ranking, tougher admission requirements: they do not make for an easy marketing pitch to alumni clubs around the country. But Mr. Casteen and his colleagues are going ahead, saying the pendulum has swung too far in one direction.
That was the mission of John Blackburn, Virginia's easy-going admissions dean, when he rented a car and took to the road recently. Mr. Blackburn thought of the trip as a reprise of the drives Mr. Casteen took 25 years earlier, when he was the admissions dean, traveling to churches and community centers to persuade black parents that the university was finally interested in their children.
One Monday night, Mr. Blackburn came to Big Stone Gap, in a mostly poor corner of the state not far from Andy Blevins's town. A community college there was holding a college fair, and Mr. Blackburn set up a table in a hallway, draping it with the University of Virginia's blue and orange flag.
As students came by, Mr. Blackburn would explain Virginia's new admissions and financial aid policies. But he soon realized that the Virginia name might have been scaring off the very people his pitch was intended for. Most of the students who did approach the table showed little interest in the financial aid and expressed little need for it. One man walked up to Mr. Blackburn and introduced his son as an aspiring doctor. The father was an ophthalmologist. Other doctors came by, too. So did some lawyers.
''You can't just raise the UVa flag,'' Mr. Blackburn said, packing up his materials at the end of the night, ''and expect a lot of low-income kids to come out.''
When the applications started arriving in his office this spring, there seemed to be no increase in those from low-income students. So Mr. Blackburn extended the deadline two weeks for everybody, and his colleagues also helped some applicants with the maze of financial aid forms. Of 3,100 incoming freshmen, it now seems that about 180 will qualify for the new financial aid program, up from 130 who would have done so last year. It is not a huge number, but Virginia administrators call it a start.
A Big Decision
On a still-dark February morning, with the winter's heaviest snowfall on the ground, Andy Blevins scraped off his Jeep and began his daily drive to the supermarket warehouse. As he passed the home of Mike Nash, his neighbor and fellow gospel singer, he noticed that the car was still in the driveway. For Mr. Nash, a school counselor and the only college graduate in the singing group, this was a snow day.
Mr. Blevins later sat down with his calendar and counted to 280: the number of days he had worked last year. Two hundred and eighty days -- six days a week most of the time -- without ever really knowing what the future would hold.
''I just realized I'm going to have to do something about this,'' he said, ''because it's never going to end.''
In the weeks afterward, his daydreaming about college and his conversations about it with his sister Leanna turned into serious research. He requested his transcripts from Radford and from Virginia Highlands Community College and figured out that he had about a year's worth of credits. He also talked to Leanna about how he could become an elementary school teacher. He always felt that he could relate to children, he said. The job would take up 180 days, not 280. Teachers do not usually get laid off or lose their pensions or have to take a big pay cut to find new work.
So the decision was made. On May 31, Andy Blevins says, he will return to Virginia Highlands, taking classes at night; the Gospel Gentlemen are no longer booking performances. After a year, he plans to take classes by video and on the Web that are offered at the community college but run by Old Dominion, a Norfolk, Va., university with a big group of working-class students.
''I don't like classes, but I've gotten so motivated to go back to school,'' Mr. Blevins said. ''I don't want to, but, then again, I do.''
He thinks he can get his bachelor's degree in three years. If he gets it at all, he will have defied the odds.
Richest Are Leaving Even the Rich Far Behind
The New York Times
Sunday, June 5, 2005
by David Cay Johnston
When F. Scott Fitzgerald pronounced that the very rich "are different from you and me," Ernest Hemingway's famously dismissive response was: "Yes, they have more money." Today he might well add: much, much, much more money.
The people at the top of America's money pyramid have so prospered in recent years that they have pulled far ahead of the rest of the population, an analysis of tax records and other government data by The New York Times shows. They have even left behind people making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
Call them the hyper-rich.
They are not just a few Croesus-like rarities. Draw a line under the top 0.1 percent of income earners - the top one-thousandth. Above that line are about 145,000 taxpayers, each with at least $1.6 million in income and often much more.
The average income for the top 0.1 percent was $3 million in 2002, the latest year for which averages are available. That number is two and a half times the $1.2 million, adjusted for inflation, that group reported in 1980. No other income group rose nearly as fast.
The share of the nation's income earned by those in this uppermost category has more than doubled since 1980, to 7.4 percent in 2002. The share of income earned by the rest of the top 10 percent rose far less, and the share earned by the bottom 90 percent fell.
Next, examine the net worth of American households. The group with homes, investments and other assets worth more than $10 million comprised 338,400 households in 2001, the last year for which data are available. The number has grown more than 400 percent since 1980, after adjusting for inflation, while the total number of households has grown only 27 percent.
The Bush administration tax cuts stand to widen the gap between the hyper-rich and the rest of America. The merely rich, making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, will shoulder a disproportionate share of the tax burden.
President Bush said during the third election debate last October that most of the tax cuts went to low- and middle-income Americans. In fact, most - 53 percent - will go to people with incomes in the top 10 percent over the first 15 years of the cuts, which began in 2001 and would have to be reauthorized in 2010. And more than 15 percent will go just to the top 0.1 percent, those 145,000 taxpayers.
The Times set out to create a financial portrait of the very richest Americans, how their incomes have changed over the decades and how the tax cuts will affect them. It is no secret that the gap between the rich and the poor has grown, but the extent to which the richest are leaving everyone else behind is not widely known.
The Treasury Department uses a computer model to examine the effects of tax cuts on various income groups but does not look in detail fine enough to differentiate among those within the top 1 percent. To determine those differences, The Times relied on a computer model based on the Treasury's. Experts at organizations representing a range of views, including the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and Citizens for Tax Justice, reviewed the projections and said they were reasonable, and the Treasury Department said through a spokesman that the model was reliable.
The analysis also found the following:
Under the Bush tax cuts, the 400 taxpayers with the highest incomes - a minimum of $87 million in 2000, the last year for which the government will release such data - now pay income, Medicare and Social Security taxes amounting to virtually the same percentage of their incomes as people making $50,000 to $75,000.
Those earning more than $10 million a year now pay a lesser share of their income in these taxes than those making $100,000 to $200,000.
The alternative minimum tax, created 36 years ago to make sure the very richest paid taxes, takes back a growing share of the tax cuts over time from the majority of families earning $75,000 to $1 million - thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars annually. Far fewer of the very wealthiest will be affected by this tax.
The analysis examined only income reported on tax returns. The Treasury Department says that the very wealthiest find ways, legal and illegal, to shelter a lot of income from taxes. So the gap between the very richest and everyone else is almost certainly much larger.
The hyper-rich have emerged in the last three decades as the biggest winners in a remarkable transformation of the American economy characterized by, among other things, the creation of a more global marketplace, new technology and investment spurred partly by tax cuts. The stock market soared; so did pay in the highest ranks of business.
One way to understand the growing gap is to compare earnings increases over time by the vast majority of taxpayers - say, everyone in the lower 90 percent - with those at the top, say, in the uppermost 0.01 percent (now about 14,000 households, each with $5.5 million or more in income last year).
From 1950 to 1970, for example, for every additional dollar earned by the bottom 90 percent, those in the top 0.01 percent earned an additional $162, according to the Times analysis. From 1990 to 2002, for every extra dollar earned by those in the bottom 90 percent, each taxpayer at the top brought in an extra $18,000.
President Ronald Reagan signed tax bills that benefited the wealthiest Americans and also gave tax breaks to the working poor. President Bill Clinton raised income taxes for the wealthiest, cut taxes on investment gains, and expanded breaks for the working poor. Mr. Bush eliminated income taxes for families making under $40,000, but his tax cuts have also benefited the wealthiest Americans far more than his predecessors' did.
The Bush administration says that the tax cuts have actually made the income tax system more progressive, shifting the burden slightly more to those with higher incomes. Still, an Internal Revenue Service study found that the only taxpayers whose share of taxes declined in 2001 and 2002 were those in the top 0.1 percent.
But a Treasury spokesman, Taylor Griffin, said the income tax system is more progressive if the measurement is the share borne by the top 40 percent of Americans rather than the top 0.1 percent.
The Times analysis also shows that over the next decade, the tax cuts Mr. Bush wants to extend indefinitely would shift the burden further from the richest Americans. With incomes of more than $1 million or so, they would get the biggest share of the breaks, in total amounts and in the drop in their share of federal taxes paid.
One reason the merely rich will fare much less well than the very richest is the alternative minimum tax. This tax, the successor to one enacted in 1969 to make sure the wealthiest Americans could not use legal loopholes to live tax-free, has never been adjusted for inflation. As a result, it stings Americans whose incomes have crept above $75,000.
The Times analysis shows that by 2010 the tax will affect more than four-fifths of the people making $100,000 to $500,000 and will take away from them nearly one-half to more than two-thirds of the recent tax cuts. For example, the group making $200,000 to $500,000 a year will lose 70 percent of their tax cut to the alternative minimum tax in 2010, an average of $9,177 for those affected.
But because of the way it is devised, the tax affects far fewer of the very richest: about a third of the taxpayers reporting more than $1 million in income. One big reason is that dividends and investment gains, which go mostly to the richest, are not subject to the tax.
Another reason that the wealthiest will fare much better is that the tax cuts over the past decade have sharply lowered rates on income from investments.
While most economists recognize that the richest are pulling away, they disagree on what this means. Those who contend that the extraordinary accumulation of wealth is a good thing say that while the rich are indeed getting richer, so are most people who work hard and save. They say that the tax cuts encourage the investment and the innovation that will make everyone better off.
"In this income data I see a snapshot of a very innovative society," said Tim Kane, an economist at the Heritage Foundation. "Lower taxes and lower marginal tax rates are leading to more growth. There's an explosion of wealth. We are so wealthy in a world that is profoundly poor."
But some of the wealthiest Americans, including Warren E. Buffett, George Soros and Ted Turner, have warned that such a concentration of wealth can turn a meritocracy into an aristocracy and ultimately stifle economic growth by putting too much of the nation's capital in the hands of inheritors rather than strivers and innovators. Speaking of the increasing concentration of incomes, Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve chairman, warned in Congressional testimony a year ago: "For the democratic society, that is not a very desirable thing to allow it to happen."
Others say most Americans have no problem with this trend. The central question is mobility, said Bruce R. Bartlett, an advocate of lower taxes who served in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations. "As long as people think they have a chance of getting to the top, they just don't care how rich the rich are."
But in fact, economic mobility - moving from one income group to another over a lifetime - has actually stopped rising in the United States, researchers say. Some recent studies suggest it has even declined over the last generation.