Income Disparity Drag on Diversity in Elite Institutions

Schools may want to examine whether race- and ethnicity-based admissions preference policies should give way to "poverty preference." If they did, the outcome could be as much or more diversity than is currently being achieved. That's the message from a new report by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation that examines high-achieving, low-income student representation within "selective" institutions.'' The foundation, which provides scholarships and advances education initiatives to help students with financial need attain their educational goals, worked with another non-profit, the Century Foundation, on the study.

"True Merit: Ensuring Our Brightest Students Have Access to Our Best Colleges and Universities" found that only three percent of enrollment at elite schools was made up of low-income students. In fact, high-achieving students from high-income families were three times more likely to enroll in a selective school as those from low-income families. Nearly three-quarters of students (72 percent) in the most competitive schools come from the wealthiest 25 percent of the U.S. population, the study found.

The report defines the selective institutions it's referring to as those classified by Barron's Profiles of American Colleges as "most competitive" and "highly competitive." In 2015 193 schools fit those categories. Students designated as "high-achieving" are those who graduated from high school and placed in the top quarter of their schools based on scores from a 10th grade reading and math assessment.

Institutional selectivity matters, the report insisted, because of the ultimate positive outcome: "High-achieving students who attend more selective schools graduate at higher rates, earn higher incomes and are more likely to pursue a graduate degree." As an example, whereas 92 percent of high-achieving students complete their bachelor's degrees at the highly competitive schools, only 76 percent do so at the merely competitive institutions. Starting salaries average $37,658 for the former graduates and $30,019 at the latter.

Authors Jennifer Giancola, director of research at the Cooke Foundation, and Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, found that only 23 percent of high-achieving, low-income students apply to a selective school, compared with 48 percent of high-achieving, high-income students. The Cooke Foundation has seen this pattern of "under-matching" in its own scholarship applicants; students choose to apply to schools where the average applicant's academic capacity is lower than their own. The two primary reasons are that the students don't believe they can afford an elite institution; and they don't receive accurate or individualized guidance. Interestingly, the report stated, the out-of-pocket costs (including room and board) are lowest at the most competitive schools, $6,754 per year vs. $19,400 at those designated as simply competitive.

"For many high-achieving, low-income students and their parents, enrolling in a top-tier college far from home seems as impossible as taking a trip to Mars," said Cooke Foundation Executive Director Harold Levy in a prepared statement. As he pointed out, students don't always know how to go after scholarships; they can't afford course fees for SAT or ACT preparation courses; they can't cover the expense of visiting colleges they're considering attending; and because they often hold after-school jobs, they don't participate in extracurricular activities in high school. "All this sharply reduces their chances of admission to the most selective colleges and universities, amounting to an unjust poverty penalty levied against outstanding students," he noted.

Levy recommended a "new program of preferential admissions" for low-income students who qualify as a way "to ensure continued diversity in higher education, and keep the American Dream alive for many students born into struggling families."

The report is freely available on the Cooke Foundation Web site.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.