A recent article by Harold Levy, executive director of Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, highlighted what seems to me to be a glaring oversight. A study by his foundation using data from the Department of Education to track talented students found that only 59% of smart children from low-income households, defined as those who scored in the top 25% on standardized exams, graduate from college. This compares with 77% of similarly bright children from affluent families who complete an undergraduate degree. In addition, it found that high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds graduate from college at about the same rate as low-scoring students from affluent families.
Further, as recently reported by the New York Times, in 2006, at the 82 schools rated “most competitive” by Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges, 14% came from the poorer half of the nation’s families, according to a study of the data by Georgetown University and the University of Michigan. This percentage was unchanged since 1982. At a more elite group of 28 private colleges including the Ivy League, researchers found that between 2001 and 2009, a period of explosion in financial aid at these schools, enrollment of students from the bottom 40% of family incomes increased from 10% to only 11%. I suspect that a significant number of these kids are high achievers.
Doesn’t there seem to be a disconnect here? While we are piling up astronomical amounts of student debt and ever-increasing aid to these institutions, which arguably drives tuition and fee escalation, and while we continue to pursue discriminatory admission policies based on the so-called state interest in “diversity”, it appears that a large number of the deserving students we ostensibly are trying to help are falling through the cracks, not only to their detriment, but to the country’s.
No doubt, tapping this pool for the more highly-selective schools is difficult for a variety of reasons, but it is hard not to at least some extent agree with Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, who said, “Higher education has become a powerful force for reinforcing advantage and passing it on through generations”. We need to take a hard look at the perverse incentives that are sustaining this outcome, and thoughtful university trustees and alumni are the people to do it.