Low-income students already face an uphill battle when it comes to gaining access to good colleges. But now it seems that a lot of colleges are actually loading the dice even more in favor of the wealthiest students. For example:
- The Washington Post’s Wonkblog discussed some of the ways that federal financial aid programs have actually had the perverse effect of increasing the price of college tuition.
- A new report from the New America Foundation finds that some colleges have responded to increased federal aid for the poor by shifting their own institutional aid to the wealthiest students.
- Last week, ProPublica reported on the ways that colleges improve (and sometimes distort) their admissions statistics. Outright lying is the most overtly egregious practice cited—at least five universities have admitted to fudging their numbers.
But for advocates of increasing college access and equity, one of the most troubling trends is colleges’ continued reliance on early admissions to boost their “yield,” or the percentage of admitted students who ultimately enroll.
As my colleague Richard D. Kahlenberg has noted, early admissions programs consistently disadvantage low-income students, who are less likely to have access to the advising and information needed to find out about the programs and apply in time. Binding early decision programs (as opposed to non-binding early action) further exclude low-income students by requiring applicants to commit to attending without being able to compare financial aid awards at different schools.
The “admissions arms race” is not likely to end any time soon, but it does not have to perpetuate inequality. There are many tactics other than early admissions that colleges could use to optimize their statistics, attract students, and increase their prestige. With a slight shift in thinking and strategy, colleges could boost their numbers and widen college access at the same time.
One way to convince colleges to increase access is to make that a factor in college rankings. U.S. News could incorporate measures of equity—such as the percentage of low-income and first-generation students—into their formulas for ranking the best colleges. (U.S. News does offer a list showing the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants at top-ranked schools, but this information is not a factor in the rankings.)
Convincing U.S. News to change their formulas based on equity may be a hard sell, but there are good reasons for colleges to pursue this change on their own.
The main goal behind having impressive admissions statistics is to attract students. While some students might care about economic diversity per se, many others might not. But students do seem to care about geographic diversity. NYU has a snazzy page highlighting enrollment statistics that boasts that NYU students come from more than 90 countries.
What if colleges expanded geography to think about high schools across the U.S.? How many different high schools are represented in each college’s application pool? Among admitted and enrolled students? If selective colleges made it a goal to increase the number of high schools from which students apply and are admitted, chances are that many of the new schools would be under-resourced and many of the students would be low-income or first-generation college students.
Students also care about employment statistics, particularly in this economic climate. Colleges are meant to be drivers of social mobility. What if, in addition to touting the average salary of recent graduates—NYU boasts $50,000—colleges highlighted the ratio of students’ family incomes to their post-graduation incomes?
Finally, if colleges just want to boost applications from strong students and increase their yield, then reaching out to high-achieving, low-income students is a great strategy.
A recent study by Stanford University professor Caroline Hoxby and Harvard University professor Christopher Avery found that most high-achieving students from the bottom income quartile do not apply to a single selective college or university.
But a follow-up study by Hoxby and Sarah Turner of the University of Virginia found that simply mailing customized college information packets (giving the kind of advice that good college counselors provide) boosted application rates among high-achieving, low-income students by almost 50 percent.
If colleges are looking for more qualified students who are not currently applying, the pool of low-income students is the place to look. And if yield is a concern, selective universities should consider aggressive recruiting of low-income students as an alternative to promoting early admissions. Since most high-achieving, low-income students are not currently applying to any selective schools, an offer of admission from a prestigious school with good financial aid might easily climb to the top of their list.