Photo by Tax Credits, Flickr CC

College education is a core part of social mobility in the United States, but it is also increasingly controversial. Amid polarizing views on trust in colleges and universities and a proposed plan to tax graduate students’ tuition waivers, Americans are facing big questions about the role of higher education in our society.

Now, there’s a new twist. In an op-ed column for The New York Times, UC Merced sociologist Charlie Eaton looks at how some private schools are tied up in the Paradise Papers exposé. Eaton writes,

“It’s an increasingly bipartisan view that elite private colleges are islands of wealth. And there’s good reason for that: It’s true … the Paradise Papers revealed that dozens of wealthy college endowments use Caribbean islands as offshore tax havens for their investments.”

Eaton argues that this revelation is in line with a long term trend toward inequality in higher education, where some schools show a broad commitment to educating a wide range of people, while others stockpile their resources to serve a small student body. Elite private schools often enroll a limited number of students, drawing a large proportion from “the 1 percent.”

“The problem with enormous endowment growth is that private institutions have not used the resource boom to provide greater benefits to the public … America’s top public universities, on the other hand, have substantially increased their enrollments since the 1970s despite shrinking state funding. They also tend to enroll low-income students at much higher rates.”

In a time where more people are skeptical of colleges and universities, scandals like this pose a central question for the future of higher education: can private schools provide a leg up, or will they have to find another way to pay out?