‘Exclusion U’ Documentary Exposes Ivy League Elitism

The film urges Ivy League colleges to be elite but not elitist, using their massive wealth to expand educational and civic opportunities.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer and higher education analyst with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former...
Updated on October 4, 2023
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  • A new documentary, "Exclusion U," claims Ivy League colleges hoard wealth and stubbornly remain exclusive.
  • The eight schools receive public funding and tax breaks but fail to adequately support their communities, the film argues.
  • It also suggests holistic admissions practices favor wealthy families, legacies, and student-athletes.
  • The film calls on the Ivies to expand enrollments and support their communities.

A new documentary takes aim at the Ivy League, casting the eight private colleges in a largely unfavorable light.

Through interviews with students, alumni, admissions officers, faculty, and industry experts, "Exclusion U" paints a picture of exceedingly rich institutions benefiting from public funding while remaining exclusive, refusing to expand enrollments, and catering to wealthy families.

The Varsity Blues scandal, we're led to believe, was only the tip of the iceberg.

"Ivies use their money not to educate U," claims the film's tagline, "but to exclude U."

How convincing are the film's arguments?

Ivies as Bastions of Wealth and Privilege

"Exclusion U" emanates from director Ginger Gentile's own experiences as a student. While at Columbia University, Gentile discovered a wealthy institution she believed didn't do enough for its students or the community. Her involvement with United Students Against Sweatshops and later investigations into university endowments led to the film's creation.

Still, Gentile maintains a "love-hate" relationship with Columbia, she told BestColleges.

"I'll be the first to admit I love that I got into an exclusive school," she said.

And that's how the film begins — with students on social media rejoicing and weeping over acceptances to Ivy League universities. Despite enrolling less than 1% of college students nationwide, the Ivies "have an outsized influence on the popular imagination," Gentile said.

They also serve as a "pipeline for who will be ruling us," notes Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution and author of "Dream Hoarders," packing the Supreme Court, legislative halls, and Fortune 500 companies with graduates.

Those outcomes result less from the education students receive and more from who's admitted in the first place, the film suggests. Students arrive already privileged, more likely to come from families in the top 1% income bracket than from the bottom 60%. Wealth distribution among the Ivies is "massively skewed to the top," Reeves contends.

Student testimonials bear this out, at least anecdotally. One Cornell student talks about "shocking" signs of wealth evident on campus, complete with "impromptu trips to Greece or Cyprus." A low-income Penn student from Kentucky feels "insecure" around classmates.

Being poor or being rich constitutes a central motif within the film. Wealth dominates the Ivy culture, but the colleges do enroll some low-income students, "occasional outliers" who are there because the schools "need us to believe they are accessible," says Tressie McMillan Cottom, a professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

To be fair, once admitted, low-income students receive ample aid, the film points out, often resulting in net costs that run lower than what they'd pay at their state schools.

Still, it's not exactly smooth sailing for these students. One segment shows Hannah, a Harvard undergrad, working on the "dorm crew" cleaning toilets to make ends meet.

"While Hannah was a student at Harvard," the documentary reveals, "the endowment grew by $20 billion."

Meanwhile, the middle class gets squeezed out — they can't pay full freight and don't receive adequate aid — creating a "barbell effect" whereby wealth figures are concentrated on either side of the bar and middle-income families flatline.

Ivy Colleges Remain Exclusive, Hoard Wealth

Not only are the students by and large wealthy, but the colleges themselves are as well.

Random folks on the street are told to guess the size of Ivy endowments. Their answers aren't even close, much to the shock and awe of responders.

The film's website claims the sum total of Ivy endowments exceeds $1 trillion, which of course isn't accurate. During the film, we learn that figure is actually $193 billion, while the $1 trillion sum represents the projected cumulative value in 2049. (Update: The website has since been amended to reflect the correct figure.)

Not that $193 billion isn't a healthy chunk of change. What are these colleges doing with such wealth? Not enough, the film says.

The Ancient Eight certainly aren't expanding enrollments and creating opportunities for more students. Instead, they remain relatively small and exclusive, chasing ever smaller acceptance rates and favorable magazine rankings, all in the name of prestige.

"There is no reason why they can't offer more educational opportunities," Gentile said.

Rather, they opt to "hoard" endowments and enjoy a relatively tax-exempt existence apart from the 1.4% excise tax levied on only the wealthiest colleges in terms of endowment per student. They don't pay property taxes, occasionally offering modest PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) funds to support their cities.

In the case of Yale, which owns 60% of New Haven's real estate, that's a "drop in the bucket," says the city's mayor.

Casual observers might also be shocked to discover the amount of federal funding these colleges receive. If the Ivies, collectively speaking, were a state, they'd outrank 16 states on the direct receipt of federal funds, notes Adam Andrzejewski, CEO and founder of Open the Books, a fiscal watchdog group.

Those are taxpayer funds funneling into university coffers, public investments that don't return public dividends in the form of educational access or community support.

"It's a legal, beautifully designed, elegant hustle," Gentile said.

The film's website claims government grants support the Ivies at a "higher rate than all other colleges and universities combined." While it's difficult to parse those figures, this assertion doesn't ring true. Consulting one example of research and development expenditures, which includes federal and state funding, we see only two Ivies — Penn and Harvard — among the top 10 universities nationally.

Nonetheless, the argument does hold water, to an extent. Public funding demands public accountability, something the Ivies lack, says the documentary. Yet, consider the returns on investment in the form of medical advances, technological innovations, policy recommendations, and agricultural breakthroughs, as well as the thousands of jobs created.

Society does realize some significant benefits from publicly funded research.

Students Navigate an Uneven Admissions Playing Field

With the Varsity Blues scandal still lurking as a convenient backdrop, "Exclusion U" delves into the seemingly smarmy world of elite college admissions. Plummeting acceptance rates at the Ivies have "forced" parents and students to go to "extreme lengths" to get in.

(Curiously, the film implicates Harvard in the context of Varsity Blues, but the university wasn't part of the suit.)

We hear from admissions deans at Penn and Dartmouth — the other Ivies refused to participate or comment, Gentile noted — talking about "holistic" admissions and the perceived capriciousness of the system.

Not that it's without some predictability. Certain students have an advantage, beginning the sprint with a 10-meter lead.

They include students whose families have donated significantly to the university. What's "significant"? Development and admissions offices will "start to take notice" at $10 million.

Dartmouth's admissions dean says a quid pro quo bribe, however, results in an "instant deny."

Wealthy students also benefit from college consultants, private advisers who provide advantages to the already advantaged. This "huge industry" is "one of the biggest grifts in America," says Jason England, a former admissions dean at Wesleyan University ("not an Ivy, but close," the film clarifies). Sara Harberson, an independent college counselor, is featured frequently throughout the film.

Advantages also accrue to legacies, children of alumni who gain a bump in the process. That's a distinctly American phenomenon, we learn, a practice that affords Harvard legacies a 1 in 3 chance of admission.

And, of course, we have athletes, who receive a "fist on the scale," notes Jeffrey Selingo, author of "Who Gets in And Why." Acceptance rates for recruited Harvard athletes can run as high as 83%.

The film posits a bold claim: 43% of white students at Harvard weren't admitted purely on merit. They were recruited athletes, legacies, "development" admits, and faculty kids. "Nearly three-quarters of these students wouldn't have gotten in otherwise," it concludes.

These figures come from documents submitted during the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard case, which the Supreme Court should rule on soon. This imminent and likely groundbreaking case makes the documentary even more timely and relevant.

And the film does the subject justice, delving into historical parallels between Jewish students a century ago and today's Asian students. It also explores the stigmas associated with affirmative action. A Dartmouth student mentions how fellow students assume she got in because of her color.

"It's hard being Black here," she admits.

Ivies Can 'Be Elite Without Being Elitist'

In American collegiate mythology, the Ivy League might constitute the Mount Rushmore of universities — two such mountains, to be exact — but, in reality, they fall short of realizing their collective potential, the film argues.

Instead of expanding opportunities for more students — especially more low-income students — they focus on remaining selective and amassing great wealth, becoming "hedge funds that conduct classes."

They could, and should, do more for their communities, especially given public funding and beneficial tax breaks, the argument proceeds.

"Why do we continue to invest so much in institutions that invest so little back in us?" the film's website asks.

The documentary's ultimate call to action suggests the Ivies can "be elite without being elitist." Why can't these schools triple enrollments, even quadruple them, building remote campuses and using online and hybrid options to reach more students?

Examples abound, the film notes. Rice University, an elite school in its own right, has significantly expanded and diversified its enrollment. So has Georgia Tech. Purdue University has not only grown its student body but has built feeder high schools to populate that pipeline.

And these schools have accomplished all this with far fewer resources.

"Exclusion U" is an important film offering a peek behind Ivy-laden curtains at a critical time. A monumental court case threatens to exacerbate the racial divide in college admissions. American confidence in higher education continues to wane as potential students seek cheaper and faster alternative credentials. Scandals such as Varsity Blues thrust a dagger into the heart of meritocracy and the illusion of the American dream. Legislators demand greater accountability and plot to erode academic freedom.

"The internet is full of people questioning the value of any college education," Gentile said.

This film sends yet another shot across the bow aimed directly at the Ivy League. But will it be enough to effect meaningful change?

Note: The world premiere of "Exclusion U" will be held at the Lincoln Center Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in New York City on June 8. The film was screened at Harvard University and will be available on various on-demand platforms including iTunes, Amazon, and GooglePlay beginning June 23.