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.
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."
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."
Beyond financial constraints, admissions officers at selective schools are also faced with maddening choices. Whom should they admit, after all: the ever present, high-income suburban student with the 1300 SAT and 5's on a half- dozen Advanced Placement tests who also plays violin with the all-state youth symphony? Or the low-income student with lower scores who's working 20 hours a week (and whose school offers only one or two AP courses)? Sometimes, ethnicity and class further complicate the picture: Take Sandra Gomez, a senior at a predominantly Latino high school in Los Angeles, whose mom, a seamstress, and dad, a butcher, needed her to work on Saturday mornings, which made her miss half of her SAT prep classes (she ultimately scored 1090). She's not as impressive as a middle-class applicant in some ways, but she's clearly a smart kid. She has a 4.17 GPA in demanding college-prep classes in spite of not having some of the same advantages--college-educated, English-speaking parents, for one--that her higher-income peers enjoyed. Claremont McKenna College accepted Gomez this year. But more often than not, according to Bowen's data, schools seem to be going with the suburban applicant.
Of course, not everyone thinks affirmative action is the way to solve this problem--or, for that matter, that the dearth of low-income students on elite campuses is a problem at all. Believers in cut-and-dried academic meritocracy say there's no need for anyone to get special treatment in admissions. "I should have some sympathy for this, I suppose," says Harvard historian Stephan Thernstrom, who grew up in a working-class household in small-town Michigan. "My father only had eight years of schooling. I probably would have gotten a nice boost at the time--but I still have a lot of doubts." Elite colleges should be teaching the most intellectually well-trained students, he maintains, and there just aren't many low-income kids who fall into that category. "I do not believe in any preferences for athletes. I do not believe in any preferences for alumni children. I see no reason why we should do this, either," says Thernstrom.
Others point out that focusing on the small numbers of low-income kids with high SAT s who aren't getting into top schools ignores a much bigger problem: Many low-income students don't go to college at all. Only 54 percent of students from families in the bottom income quartile go to college each year, according to a College Board study, compared with 82 percent of those from the top quartile. Even if everything Bowen hopes for comes to pass, "the reality is that those poor kids who are admissible to Harvard or Williams are already going to college," says former Macalester College president Michael McPherson, who now heads the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation. "In terms of affecting the overall national picture for access of poor kids to college, this kind of program can't do very much."
Still, as with the debate over racial diversity, advocates insist that top schools play a unique role in producing the nation's elite--and over the past year several powerful presidents from these institutions seem increasingly determined to take action on behalf of needy students. Last year, Harvard President Lawrence Summers set the tone in a speech announcing a new financial aid policy that will give a free ride to students from families making less than $40,000 a year and more generous aid for those with family incomes between $40,000 and $60,000. "We want to send the strongest possible message that Harvard is open to talented students from all economic backgrounds," he said.
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.
Where the Poor Are
Economic diversity on campus can be measured by the number of students receiving federal Pell Grants.
INSTITUTION(STATE) UNDERGRAD ENROLLMENT PELL GRANT RECIPIENTS PCT. OF TOTAL
Univ. of Calif.-Los Angeles 25,328 8,887 35.1
Univ. of Calif.-Berkeley 23,269 7,549 32.4
Amherst College(MA) 1,640 259 15.8
Columbia Univ.(NY) 6,867 1,023 14.9
Univ. of N.C.-Chapel Hill 15,844 2,090 13.2
Univ. of Mich.-Ann Arbor 24,547 3,073 12.5
Yale University(CT) 5,286 536 10.1
Williams College(MA) 1,997 188 9.4
Princeton University(NJ) 4,744 350 7.4
Harvard University(MA) 9,637 655 6.8
Source: Century Foundation, figures from the 2001-2002 academic year
These schools have replaced loans with grants in their neediest students' financial aid packages. Princeton has done so for all students receiving aid.
University of Maryland-College Park
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
University of Virginia
The Odds of Getting In
Non-minority, low-income applicants with the same SAT scores as recruited athletes, minorities, or alumni kids are less likely to be admitted.
Percent admitted to college
SAT SCORE RANGE
Less than 900 1250-1299 1550-1600
All recruited athletes 56.4 pct. 77.2 pct. 93.3 pct.
All blacks and Latinos
All children of alumni
Non-minority bottom quartile 2.9 pct. 37 pct. 78.8 pct.
Percent admitted to college 0,20,40,60,80,100 pct.
SAT score range Less than 900,900-949,950-999,1000-1049,1050-1099,1100-1149, 1150-1199
Source: Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education, based on 1995 data from 19 selective schools
This story appears in the May 2, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.