Mark Thoma writes,

David Brooks says, “Especially in these days after Katrina, everybody laments poverty and inequality. But what are you doing about it? For example, let’s say you work at a university or a college. You are a cog in the one of the great inequality producing machines this country has known. What are you doing to change that?”

Let me defend universities against the implied notion that colleges aren’t doing anything to address these problems…I chaired the University’s Scholarship Committee, the committee responsible for allocating the entire pool of University scholarship money. As Chair, I had the committee reexamine each step in our process to try and identify hidden bias in the award of scholarship money…I resent the implication that we do not care, are not sensitive to, or are not taking action to address these problems. We are.

In my view, the issue is larger than universities’ policies concerning admissions and financial aid. It concerns how universities are financed, and how this affects the distribution of income.

First, consider state subsidies for universities. These are almost certainly regressive. Much of the subsidy goes to raise the rents earned by administrators and professors. Much of the rest goes to affluent students. The taxes that pay for the subsidies come from all economic classes.

Second, consider university endowments. Again, they serve to increase rents of employees and to subsidize those students who attend the most elite institutions–a student population that is disproportionately affluent.

Imagine instead what might happen if state funds and alumni donations funded vouchers for student tuition.

Compared with reforming university finances, tinkering with admissions and scholarship policies is beside the point. It may “show that you care,” but has little practical significance.