Threat to the American Dream? Colleges are failing to recruit low-income students

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With high school seniors looking to make important decisions regarding their college choices in the upcoming weeks, a fascinating study has emerged analyzing the effects of socio-economic status on college acceptance and performance rates. The numbers are staggering; 34% of high achieving low-income students make it into any of the U.S’s 238 most selective schools, while that figure is 74% for top students in the highest income bracket. While the racial gap is large but has been decreasing over the past two decades, what’s interesting is that income gaps continue to increase. It has become apparent that colleges are failing to admit or even reach out to applicants of more diverse backgrounds, not only racially but also socio-economically.

A comprehensive study by Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery reveals that 69% of those high achieving low-income students are white. It’s unfortunate that poor and white doesn’t count as “diverse” enough for Ivy League schools, especially in an environment like Harvard where:

“Approximately 45.6 percent of Harvard undergraduates come from families with incomes above $200,000, placing them in the top 3.8 percent of American households. Even more shockingly, only about 4 percent of Harvard undergraduates come from the bottom quintile of U.S. incomes and a mere 17.8 percent come from the bottom three quintiles of U.S. incomes.” (Crimson, 2013)

Perhaps universities aren’t as diverse as they are claiming to be, rather, they are defining diversity simply in terms of ethnicity and race instead of taking a holistic approach and creating opportunities for bright but under-privileged students and really making a difference in the power of social mobility. According to researchers Martha Bailey and Susan Dynarski, 30 years ago there was a 31% point difference between rich and poor Americans with bachelors degrees. Today that gap has risen to 45 points.

One might blame the gap on the inability of lower-income students to thrive in a competitive college environment with a diverse population, suggesting that perhaps they would do better at a local community college. However, the study found that 89% of these students who went to selective schools graduated, whereas only 50% of them graduated from non-selective schools.

Students already living in bad neighborhoods who attend under-performing schools will not have the same information or access to well informed guidance counselors or teachers who can help them make decisions regarding their future. The finest college guidance counselors are recruited to work at schools with the highest masses of high-achievers, and for those few high-achieving students living in rural areas, it is unlikely that admissions staff will come to visit each and every school across America. (Hoxby)

If uninformed guidance counselors and visits from admissions staff at colleges isn’t the most effective way of reaching high-achieving low income students, then what is? Whose responsibility is it to reach out to this portion of “America’s future”? Should colleges let them continue to slide through the cracks or finally own up to their claims of diversity in all regards by allocating funds toward recruiting students from a wider socio-economic backgrounds?

Hoxby and Avery created the Expanding College Opportunities Project (ECO-C), which “combines semi-customized information and low-paperwork fee waivers on students’ application, admissions, and enrollment.” This low-cost (only $6 per student!) form of outreach proved to cause students to submit 19 percent more applications and to be 27 percent more likely to submit at least five applications”. The ECO-C intervention had its greatest effects on high achieving low-income students.

A project like this shows how momentous and useful different forms of outreach can be. If this were applied across the country, tens of thousands more students would have the guidance necessary to make more informed decisions about attending college. If all higher education institutions distributed something similar to ECO-C, perhaps it would aid in making the entire country more prosperous.

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