Low-income students have long been a rare and invisible minority at elite colleges. That may be about to change
For Bowen and a group of would-be reformers, it's just about time that changed. Race and ethnicity may have dominated the admissions landscape for years, but when the Supreme Court gave the nod to certain forms of race-based affirmative action in 2003, some of higher education's biggest thinkers began casting about (at long last, some would say) for ways to increase access for another campus minority--low-income students. In the past year and a half, the presidents of Harvard, Yale, and the University of Virginia, among others, have announced major changes to their financial aid packages in an effort to attract more needy students. Supporters of class-based affirmative action are starting to demand admissions boosts for the underprivileged. So the Next Big Question after race seems to be increasingly clear: Why are there are so few low-income students on college campuses--and what else can be done about it?
For many admissions officers, the stock answer has long been that there is simply not a large enough pool of academically qualified low-income students. Performance on standardized tests, class rank, grade-point average--all are highly correlated with family income and parental education. Low-income applicants, as a group, don't do well on any of them. "I just don't know how they're admissible in much higher numbers than we already have," says Don Davis, associate director for student financial services at the University of Texas-Austin, one of the state's elite universities, where undergraduates' median family income hovers around $80,000. "It's not something we can change."
Bowen, the author of several influential works supportive of race-based affirmative action and critical of low academic standards for college athletes, disagrees. In his new book, Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education, he insists that there really is a substantial pool of low-income applicants who have what it takes to succeed at the nation's most selective schools. Some of them may not look as good on paper as do more affluent applicants, Bowen acknowledges. Still, his data show they have great academic potential and that admissions officers aren't doing what they could to give promising low-income kids an extra nudge in the process.
After all, alumni children, jocks, and minorities get a helping hand: Recruited athletes with combined SAT scores from 1250 to 1299, for example, are admitted 77 percent of the time at the 19 schools Bowen studied. Blacks and Latinos with the same scores enjoy a 66 percent admit rate; alumni kids, or legacies, 51 percent. Nonminority, low-income applicants in that SAT range, however, are admitted only 37 percent of the time--exactly the same rate as the rest of the nonminority applicant pool. Admissions officers may think they're already doing all they can to admit low-income kids, he says, "but as an overall statistical statement, they're just wrong."
Outsiders. And more than a few low-income students, as a result, feel like fish out of water on campuses that pride themselves on being inclusive and diverse. For some, collegiate culture shock can be triggered by something as simple as a haircut. Princeton freshman Thomas Tullius Jr., whose widowed mother lives on a pension of about $30,000 a year, ended up cutting his own hair when he found out his classmates were paying nearly $30--seemingly nonchalantly--at one barbershop near campus. For others, the tensions run deeper still. When Jose Silva, a 2004 grad of the University of Denver who grew up in a housing project on the city's west side, transferred in as a junior from a community college, "I didn't really have a whole lot of friends," he says. He hung out with the basketball team, mostly, and discovered that his firsthand experience with urban violence and poverty made it hard to relate to his more-sheltered classmates. Especially in public-policy classes or discussions of crime and punishment, Silva says, "my view of what life is like is totally not their . . . view."