Class Discrimination in College Admissions
Mark my words, this front-page story in today’s NY Times, in (rightly) shaming so many of our elite colleges and universities, will result in real change. What school is going to want to be on the bottom of this list? I love the quotes from the President of Vassar:
With affirmative action under attack and economic mobility feared to be stagnating, top colleges profess a growing commitment to recruiting poor students. But a comparison of low-income enrollment shows wide disparities among the most competitive private colleges. A student at Vassar, for example, is three times as likely to receive a need-based Pell Grant as one at Washington University in St. Louis.
“It’s a question of how serious you are about it,” said Catharine Bond Hill, the president of Vassar. She said of colleges with multibillion-dollar endowments and numerous tax exemptions that recruit few poor students, “Shame on you.”
At Vassar, Amherst College and Emory University, 22 percent of undergraduates in 2010-11 received federal Pell Grants, which go mostly to students whose families earn less than $30,000 a year. The same year, the most recent in the federal Department of Education database, only 7 percent of undergraduates at Washington University were Pell recipients, and 8 percent at Washington and Lee University were, according to research by The New York Times.
Researchers at Georgetown University have found that at the most competitive colleges, only 14 percent of students come from the lower 50 percent of families by income. That figure has not increased over more than two decades, an indication that a generation of pledges to diversify has not amounted to much. Top colleges differ markedly in how aggressively they hunt for qualified teenagers from poorer families, how they assess applicants who need aid, and how they distribute the available aid dollars.
Some institutions argue that they do not have the resources to be as generous as the top colleges, and for most colleges, with meager endowments, that is no doubt true. But among the elites, nearly all of them with large endowments, there is little correlation between a university’s wealth and the number of students who receive Pell Grants, which did not exceed $5,550 per student last year.
…Among the top private schools, the disparities are even greater. Some private college administrators say they do not have the same moral obligation as public colleges to serve all strata of society, though they are loath to say so publicly.
Ms. Hill, of Vassar, disagrees.
“We receive public support through federal grants, state grants, our tax exemptions, so I think we have the same duty,” she said. “And if young people don’t have an equal shot at getting a great education, we’re going to create a society we’re not very happy with.”
Too bad the article didn’t quote Dan Porterfield, the President of Franklin & Marshall, who has done more in this area than anyone – he’s just a warrior (he’s arriving at the KIPP Summit today). When I sent him this article, he replied:
The Carnevale and Hoxby/Avery research -- and countless earlier studies -- paint an unflattering picture of an America that isn't giving qualified high school students from modest- or low-income backgrounds the opportunities to attend top colleges and universities for which they're qualified.
There are many steps colleges can take to address the phenomenon of undermatching. All can work to increase financial aid; partner with high schools to expand college-knowledge; recruit, admit and enroll more great aid-eligible students; and, of course, educate students for successful lives. Doing this work well enhances the learning of all students and will strengthen the academic quality of almost any college. At Franklin & Marshall College, we're pleased to have used a Board-approved financial aid increase to enroll three consecutive classes with 17 percent Pell eligible students -- up from 8-11 percent -- and the early academic results are very strong.
But government and perhaps philanthropy have roles to play -- in addition to promoting continued improvements in K-12 education. For example, and this policy idea may be controversial, perhaps it's time to adjust the way Pell grants are allocated in order to incentivize strong colleges both to enroll and graduate more Pell-eligible students?
Maybe we should give colleges that hit ambitious enrollment and graduation targets a larger Pell allocation per student, to reflect the fact that federal aid should be an investment in developing the human capital of the nation. And while we're at it, I'd support giving a new Pell-plus bonus grant to high schools serving predominantly low-income communities whose alumni go on to graduate from colleges at very high rates.
The NY Times article above profiles two young black men from low-income families in Jackson, Miss. who, against all odds, are now attending Yale and Harvard. Here’s what Travis Reginal, the Yale student, writes:
My mother was 15 when I was born. My parents were naïve, reckless and, in my father’s case, overwhelmed. So I was raised in a single-parent home. No one is surprised to hear that, unfortunately. That’s the norm in many African-American communities; in Jackson, more than half the households with children under 18 are single-parent.
Thanks to my mother, who highly values education, I found a productive substitute, burying myself in studying and reading. In 10th grade, I joined a new speech and debate club at Murrah High School, started by a classmate named Justin Porter (now at Harvard). In him, I found what I had long hoped for — a black male who could push me intellectually. The work we did gave me a depth of analytical skills, perhaps my greatest preparation for college. I also found release in writing poems. In my admissions essay, I gave the reader a glance over my shoulder — at “the process of emptying my soul” — as I composed one.
Postsecondary administrators and pundits wonder why smart students from low-income families are not applying to top institutions. For one, said students may not know what is required to apply to an Ivy League school. Had I not done my own research, I would not have known I had to take SAT subject tests. Also, it was important that the schools let me know I had a chance of getting in.
…For low-income African-American youth, the issue is rooted in low expectations. There appear to be two extremes: just getting by or being the rare gifted student. Most don’t know what success looks like. Being at Yale has raised my awareness of the soft bigotry of elementary and high school teachers and administrators who expect no progress in their students. At Yale, the quality of your work must increase over the course of the term or your grade will decrease. It propelled me to work harder.
…The anxiety has not gone away. I do not feel like the accomplished person everyone thinks I am. But I hope to inspire African-American youth to pave a path to success, regardless of the college they go to or the trade skills they acquire. I know from my personal story that many young people living in at-risk neighborhoods have large imaginations, passionate hearts and deep desires to transcend their community.
He also writes a beautiful poetic tribute to his mother.
And here’s what Justin Porter, the Harvard student, writes:
You might consider me a classic overachiever, minus the money for a college consultant. I had taken every Advanced Placement class I could fit into my schedule — 9 of the 12 Murrah offers. I had participated in science competitions at state and national levels. I had the requisite leadership roles: editor of my high school newspaper and president of its chapter of the National Honor Society. I had started a debate team with some of my closest friends, and spent my free time tutoring elementary and middle school children in mathematics and English.
To my delight, I was notified of my acceptance into Harvard College on Dec. 15, 2011, three days before my birthday. That night, after all of the celebratory texts and hugs, I sat in my room and began to cry uncontrollably.
I felt trapped between the two worlds in front of me. One held seemingly unlimited opportunity — full scholarship, career advancement, travel possibilities. But what would I sacrifice in exchange? My mother and I have never been on firm financial ground, and that was not going to magically change. It suddenly hit me why I was so troubled by her hesitant look: it was the same look she gave me the first time we were evicted from our home. What would happen to her if I left? When she was laid off from her job a few weeks later, my fears multiplied.
The guilt was invasive; beneath my smile, shame dominated my thoughts. I spent the last few weeks of my senior year worried sick — that if I left she would not have enough to eat, a safe place to live, loving company to listen to her stories. I decided to defer my acceptance.
She would hear nothing of it. “Your acceptance into Harvard is one of the shining accomplishments of my life,” she said, “and I’ll be damned if I see you give it away.”
I did not.
Earlier this year, I read an article about the failure of elite colleges to attract poor students: a Stanford study had found that only 34 percent of top students in the lowest income level had attended one of the country’s 238 most selective colleges.
I do not believe that increasing financial aid packages and creating glossy brochures alone will reverse this trend. The true forces that are keeping us away from elite colleges are cultural: the fear of entering an alien environment, the guilt of leaving loved ones alone to deal with increasing economic pressure, the impulse to work to support oneself and one’s family. I found myself distracted even while doing problem sets, questioning my role at this weird place. I began to think, “Who am I, anyway, to think I belong at Harvard, the alma mater of the Bushes, the Kennedys and the Romneys? Maybe I should have stayed in Mississippi where I belonged.”