A story alternately headlined “Top Colleges Overlook Low-Income Students” and “Top Colleges, Largely for the Elite,” is currently the most emailed item on NYT.com, about 24 hours after the New York Times published it. In it, David Leonhardt–who has often written about class for the NYT–seeks to raise awareness of the advantage that relatively affluent students enjoy in the college admissions process. Just as significantly, he explains why this phenomenon should concern all of us–because it results in wasted human capital that makes our nation less competitive. Specifically, when we don’t get our brightest young people into good colleges where their human and social capital will be enhanced, broader society loses out. This is in addition, of course, to the loss to individuals with great sheer native ability who remain without educational opportunity. Perhaps to emphasize the economic consequences of this problem, Leonhardt’s story appeared on the front page of the paper’s business section.
Leonhardt includes a lot of data to demonstrate the phenomenon he labels the “shocking affluen[ce]” of elite colleges. At the University of Michigan, for example, “more entering freshmen in 2003 came from families earning at least $200,000 a year than came from the entire bottom half of the income distribution.” The data at many private colleges is “even more extreme.” He also reports a study of the class of 2010 at the country’s 193 most selective colleges. It showed that just 15% of entering freshmen came from the bottom half of the income distribution, while 67% were from the highest-earning quartile of the distribution. Thus, Leonhardt observes, “on many campuses affluent students outnumber middle-class students.”
Leonhardt’s story features Anthony Marx, who is just leaving his post as President of Amherst College after seven years during which the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants (which corresponds roughly to those who are the bottom half of the nation’s income distribution) has risen from 13% to 22%. Marx explains that Amherst has become more meritocratic by “doing everything we can think of,” but he fears it is not enough. Indeed, Marx expresses concern that this progress will distract from how much remains to be done:
We claim to be part of the American dream and of a system based on merit and opportunity and talent. … Yet if at the top places, two-thirds of the students come from the top quartile and only 5 percent come from the bottom quartile, then we are actually part of the problem of the growing economic divide rather than part of the solution.
Discussing other studies, including this one by the Century Foundation, Leonhardt asserts that this trend to favor the affluent in college admissions is bad for America because it means we are not devoting sufficient educational resources to the students with the greatest raw potential. When “only 44 percent of low-income high school seniors with high standardized test scores enroll in a four-year college … compared with about 50 percent of high-income seniors who have average test scores,” too many of our best minds are slipping through the cracks. Yet recent studies (including this one) show that–despite claims to the contrary–most elite colleges give no admissions advantage to low-income students because they are low-income. Indeed, the manifestations of low-income status may work against applicants, as I’ve discussed recently here and here. As Marx expresses it, colleges reward overseas travel and elaborate services projects in the admissions process, but they fail to value a student’s “work at the neighborhood 7-Eleven to support your family.”
I am delighted that Leonhardt is taking up this issue and that it is garnering so much attention. But I am also wondering why the story has so captivated readers as to catapult it to No. 1 on the NYT.com list. My intrigue is heightened because I have just been reading Richard Kahlenberg’s book, The Remedy: Class, Race and Affirmative Action (1996), which made so many similar points (in greater detail, though with data from earlier decades) 15 years ago . Ultimately, Kahlenberg’s book got very little traction in the academy, including among those making admissions policy at elite institutions. Perhaps the book’s failure to effect change was due to its proposal that race-based admissions be abandoned entirely, on the assumption that class-based admissions would also serve racial minorities.
But I also wonder if Leonhardt’s story attracts our attention (or at least that of relatively affluent and well-informed New York Times readers) because of our growing awareness of income inequality in the United States. Perhaps this awareness is making us more sensitive to the challenge of upward class migration. Or does the interest of many NYT readers in this story stem from concern that awareness of these inequalities might ultimately cause their children to lose the advantage they currently enjoy as high-SES applicants to our nation’s top colleges and universities?
PS: This story was among the five most emailed stories for the week ending May 31, 2011.