Low-income students have long been a rare and invisible minority at elite colleges. That may be about to change
Before Jamie Sparano arrived at Princeton University as a freshman last fall, she didn't think she was that unusual. Her father, a New Jersey building contractor with a community-college degree, makes close to the national median family income, which is roughly $51,000. Her stay-at-home mom never attended college. Most of the families she knew at Ewing High School on the outskirts of Trenton looked a lot like hers.
Princeton, though, was different. She'd expected the old stone buildings and expansive lawns, of course. But the school was also dotted with BMWs and students in Polo and Lacoste. Prep-schoolers seemed to rule the dorms. Sparano quickly discovered she wasn't quite as normal as she thought, at least by Princeton standards: She was a strong student, sure--1420 on her SAT, graduated fifth in her class. But she just didn't have the same background as most of her classmates. Everyone's parents seemed to be Ivy-educated doctors and lawyers. Nearly half of her peers had attended private schools, while over 85 percent came from households making more than the median family income. More than 1 in 10 students had a parent who'd gone to Princeton.
Wealth and privilege quickly made their presence felt. When her roommate, early in the year, told her she was going out to get "a cheap school bag" and came home with one that cost $80, Sparano's jaw dropped. She found herself turning down invitations to go out to restaurants with her friends because she couldn't afford it. In class, she seemed to be a voice in the wilderness: When a professor in one small discussion group asked the class why they thought people joined the military, the wealthier kids, she says, started talking about duty and how prestigious the military academies were: "I was like, let's be honest," she says. "I know like a dozen people from my own high school who enlisted, and they did it to get out of Ewing!" In another seminar, while discussing a book on the working poor, a student commented that no one in the room could understand such people since Princeton families all made six-, seven-, or eight-figure incomes. Sparano could barely contain herself: "Maybe there are a small minority of us here," she replied, "but some of us do know how the other half lives."
Overshadowed. Not many, however. In a book published last week and already making waves in college admissions circles, William Bowen, the former president of Princeton and current head of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, finds that students with family incomes lower than Sparano's are even harder to find on elite college campuses: Only 11 percent of the undergrads at 19 selective public and private schools he studied--ranging from Princeton and Williams to the University of Illinois--Urbana-Champaign--come from the bottom income quartile nationally (about $27,000 a year and under). Only 6 percent are the first in their families to go to college. The same goes for other schools as well: At the nation's 146 most selective colleges and universities, according to another study last year, there are 25 high-income students (from families making $77,000 and above) for every first-generation student from the lowest income bracket.