Low-income students have long been a rare and invisible minority at elite colleges. That may be about to change
If universities want to increase access for students like Tullius and Silva (whose high school GPA was only a 2.5 but who scored a 29 out of 36 on the ACT), the solution is simple enough, Bowen says. Even a small "thumb on the scale" --something like the edge already given to legacies, say--would bump the number of low-income students on campuses from 11 percent to 17 percent. Relying on race-based affirmative action--which Bowen still believes is essential--to bring up low-income numbers clearly hasn't worked: All poor students, after all, are not minorities, and all minorities are not poor. (And the fact that even campuses as racially diverse as Princeton--where 8 percent of undergrads last year were African-American, 7 percent Hispanic, and 13 percent Asian--don't enroll many low-income students says a lot about just how many upper-middle-class minorities are being admitted to some selective schools.)
A major point in low-income students' favor, Bowen observes, is their high likelihood of classroom success. Unlike blacks, Hispanics, and recruited athletes, who tend to underperform in college relative to their high school grades and test scores, low-income students at selective schools, as a group, seem to do just as well as higher-income students with the same SAT scores. So for Bowen, himself the first in his family to attend college--his father sold cash registers in a Cincinnati suburb--it comes down to a basic choice: Why not give what he views as the least privileged group of applicants, low-income kids, the same advantage schools are already offering other sought-after groups?
Admissions officers, meanwhile, are scratching their heads, trying to figure out where their policies are going wrong. Some think selective schools' need-blind approach to admissions may be backfiring: Low-income kids just don't have the same stats as wealthier students, and prestige-hungry schools obsessed with high SAT scores may be turning them away. Others believe the real problem could be a lack of champions in admissions offices for less wealthy kids. Needy students have no equivalent of the coach speaking up on behalf of a recruited athlete, no alumni office advocating for them, no minority recruitment officer to keep a careful eye on their files.
Shortfall. Even more important, of course, is money. Kenyon College, for example, with its $150 million endowment (compared with Harvard's $22.6 billion), admitted around 1,400 students this year, only 108 of whom had family incomes lower than $40,000. Since the school meets the full need of every accepted student--tuition plus room and board comes to nearly $40,000--enrolling more poor applicants is simply out of the question unless another funding stream can be found. "One out of every two people on this campus isn't getting any financial aid at all--to me, that's shocking," says Tristram Warkentin, a Kenyon senior whose total aid package tops $30,000 a year. Administrators would certainly like to see more economic diversity. "We wish we could do it," says Jennifer Britz, the school's dean of admissions and financial aid, but "if you admitted the ideal class you wanted without any regard to what it is going to cost, you would bankrupt your institution very quickly."