Low-income students have long been a rare and invisible minority at elite colleges. That may be about to change
It took a quiet, unpublicized gathering in New York City last summer, however, for Summers and a like-minded president, Tony Marx of Amherst College, to bring a critical mass of their colleagues into their camp. The presidents of Princeton, Columbia, and Cornell all attended the meeting, which featured presentations by economists worried about elite schools' role in contributing to the country's widening income gap, as well as researchers pushing for admissions reform, including Bowen. The going was slow at first, according to those who attended. "There was a sense . . . that they were already providing a leg up to low-income students," says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, which organized the conference. "But the data showed that was not true." Indeed, Kahlenberg's own research highlights a stark disparity: Low-income students with the highest test scores are no more likely to go to college than affluent students with the lowest scores.By day's end, the evidence seemed to be sinking in. "I think it's fair to say people left the meeting agreeing that it's OK to provide affirmative action for low-income students," says Kahlenberg.
Aid. So what next? While it's clear that K-12 reform is the key to building a bigger pool, in the shorter run offering an edge in the admissions process may be the fastest way of increasing low-income numbers. At the same time, cash-strapped students need to know that there are schools willing to give them a generous assist with the financial burden of college. Already, a number of schools, including Yale, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and the University of Virginia, have announced no-loan policies for low-income students--with some dramatic results. Since Princeton began its no-loan program (which is open to all undergrads), for instance, its freshman class has included almost twice as many students from families making less than the median family income--from 88 in 1998 to 161 last year. Undergrads like Jamie Sparano and Thomas Tullius Jr. may still feel outnumbered, says Janet Rapelye, Princeton's dean of admissions, but "we've been trying to pay more attention."
Most schools, though, say scarce resources on campus mean that outside financial help--perhaps from the federal government--will be needed before they can create more socioeconomic diversity. For now, transparency may be the best anyone can hope for. Researchers at the Century Foundation are looking at ways to put a spotlight on economic diversity--by asking schools to routinely report the number of low-income students they have on campus, for instance, just as they do for racial minorities. These figures could be instructive: Only 7 percent of Princeton students, for example, receive Pell Grants targeted at low-income students, compared with 16 percent at Amherst and 35 percent at the University of California-Los Angeles.
Students like Sparano, meanwhile, will most likely continue to feel like lone emissaries of the working class, outnumbered at elite schools. Yet the experience, says Sparano, has given her fresh pride in her roots. "For all the times I'm frustrated with people," Sparano says, "I'm glad just as much that I'm bringing a little of [my background] to Princeton." Some solace, perhaps, for a once forgotten minority that may not be forgotten for much longer.