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William Egginton is the director of the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute at Johns Hopkins University. His latest book, The Splintering of the American Mind: Identity Politics, Inequality, and Community on Today’s College Campuses, which was published this week.

On the last days of August in Baltimore, something happens to break the turgid progression of the sweltering summer months. On a given morning, the normally hit-and-miss parking options on the tree-lined streets of the neighbourhood known as Charles Village precipitously dwindle. Crossing the street from campus, I can hear the excited voices of legions of 18-year-olds yelling at their parents for whatever unbelievably uncool thing they have already managed to do, and I know the unofficial start of my work year has arrived. It is move-in day at Johns Hopkins.

This week and day are always special. The air on campus becomes electrified with expectation as my colleagues and I prepare for the wave of new faces who promise to fill our courses with moments of real discovery. But there is a darker side to this annual migration, one that parents, university administrators and professors such as myself need to grapple with if we are serious about fulfilling our mission to educate the next generation of informed and involved citizens.

Higher education, especially at elite schools, prides itself as being more enlightened, more sensitive to identity politics, more concerned about racism, inequality and injustice than ever before. And yet, merely by virtue of being among the fraction who are selected to study with us, these same students are reinforcing one of the main mechanisms of social and economic sorting in my country.

The process of using education to reproduce privilege begins at the youngest age, with parents treating the education of their children as an expression of their own wealth and privilege, as opposed to ways of participating in a public service intended to maximize the public good. The process culminates in a Survivor-like competition among kids, whose parents in some cases pay tens of thousands of dollars to “educational consultants” to burnish their children’s credentials in the hopes they will be selected by schools that, in turn, compete for those same students by investing in multimillion-dollar sports facilities and multiethnic dining halls.

The upside is that many colleges and universities are using their endowments to try to rectify this problem and they are making considerable inroads. This year, Johns Hopkins increased the percentage of students whose families qualify for the U.S. federal Pell Grants that underwrite postsecondary tuition costs for lower-income students to 16 per cent, from only 6 per cent barely five year ago. But despite admirable and continuing efforts by my own university and others to be more economically as well as racially diverse, extreme imbalances persist in the United States, with many elite schools still taking more students from the top 1 per cent of the economic pyramid than from the bottom half. And contrary to the narrative now popular in the media, this skewing of American schools’ economic representation does not especially affect rural whites. The vast majority of working-class and poor people of all colours are excluded from the upper steps of the educational pyramid.

Quality education is not just important for socio-economic advancement, it’s essential to democracy; but for democracy to benefit, education itself must become more democratic. We must ensure that a broad liberal-arts curriculum is at the heart of all education, public and private, urban and rural, from primary to higher; and we also must fight against the rampant tendency to think of college and university purely as a means of training more successful economic agents. This holds true in Canada, as well. Expanding opportunities to receive the kind of robust liberal-arts education elite schools are already providing their students will not only help to redistribute wealth and reduce inequality, it will deepen the kind of civic engagement that will allow all of us have an increased stake in our community and equip us with the cognitive and social tools to help change it.

As I watch families say goodbye to their daughters and sons on move-in day, I’ll feel hopeful to know that the classes our new charges will be taking and the conversations they will be having will challenge them and us to expand our social concern and empathy. It is time to realize that in itself this is not enough, and that in the absence of systemic change, the cultivation of social concern among a tiny elite, however well meant, may do little more than mask and enable our continuing support of policies that exacerbate inequality. It is time to take the next steps and ensure that colleges and universities, and our education system as a whole, become the great equalizers we have always said they are.