In his March 17 column (“Better Colleges Failing to Lure Talented Poor”), David Leonhardt of The New York Times wrote about a study that found that only 34 percent of high-achieving students in the bottom quartile of family income enrolled in one of the nation’s 238 most selective colleges, as compared to 78 percent of high-achieving students in the top quartile of family income.
One conclusion is that elite schools, for all their rhetoric, are failing to recruit an economically diverse entering class of students.
A second, and more profound, conclusion is that high-achieving, low-income students are significantly disadvantaged by not being recruited by elite schools because the lower ranked colleges they do attend have lower graduation rates: “Many students who attend a local college do not graduate,” Leonhardt wrote. “Those who do graduate can miss out on the career opportunities that top colleges offer.”
But a second article in The New York Times (“For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in a Hard Fall”) on December 23, 2012, seems to come to a very different conclusion. Telling the story of three high-achieving, low-income students from Galveston, Texas, writer Jason DeParle found that after four years, none had earned a four-year degree, and only one was still enrolled in college. One had attended Emory, and left well short of graduation with $60,000 in debt. A second graduated from a local community college, but never transferred to a four-year school. A third is on track to graduate from a state school after her fifth year, with more than $44,000 in loans (see my blog post of January 14 for more details).
Of course, these are two very different stories. The first is a large-scale study; the second focuses on just three students. But the second story follows actual students during their four years following high school; the first story is an analysis of demographics.
Is it possible to reconcile the conclusions made in these two articles?
Missing from the first article is any consideration of the cost of education, whereas cost is at the heart of the second article. Why do high-achieving, low-income students tend to do better at elite schools than they do at less selective institutions? Let me count the ways:
So high-achieving, low-income students should strive to be admitted by elite schools, right? Well, it’s not that simple. Consider:
So should elite colleges make more of an effort to find high-achieving, low-income students? Sure – but let’s remember that many of these schools currently admit only 5 to 10 percent of their applicants. Very few of these colleges are interested in becoming larger, so more applications from high-achieving, low-income students will not result in a dramatic change in the demographics of these campuses. There are already too many prospective students trying to fit into too few seats: admission to elite colleges is like a game of musical chairs on steroids. Ten or 20 applicants will be disappointed for every one made happy by an acceptance letter.
And that’s why we need to rethink what we mean when we say “best” in reference to a college. More on this next time.