Needed: Affirmative Action for the Poor

Admission to U.S. colleges is skewed heavily toward rich kids. To break the cycle, underprivileged applicants deserve special consideration

By Laura D'Andrea Tyson

In the Information Age, higher education is more and more important as the ticket to economic success. Unfortunately, access to this ticket depends on economic success itself. A young person's chance of getting a college or post-graduate education depends on family income. Children from low-income households are much less likely to graduate from college than children raised in high-income households. As family incomes become more unequal, there are signs that the relationship between income and college graduation is becoming stronger.

Children born into high-income households become part of a virtuous circle of success. Parents with university degrees tend to earn more, set higher educational goals for their children, and invest more time in the children's schooling than parents who have a high-school education or less. In addition, given local financing of K-12 public education and the segregation of most local communities by income, the children of high-income parents tend to attend better schools and receive better preparation for college.

A study on socioeconomic status and selective-college admissions by the Century Foundation provides stark evidence of the links between family background and higher education. The recent Supreme Court ruling that it was legal to give some preferential treatment to disadvantaged minorities speaks to this point.

Low-income students who graduate from high school with at least minimal qualifications for four-year institutions enroll at half the rate of their high-income peers. Only 78% of students from low-income families who rank as top achievers on tests of college readiness actually attend college. In contrast, nearly the same share of students from high-income families who rank at the bottom of such tests do so. The conventional view is that students from low-income families don't enroll or complete college because they are not academically qualified. But the New Century evidence paints a different and more hopeful picture. Despite the considerable obstacles they encounter as they grow up, many high school students from low-income, disadvantaged households are qualified but are choosing not to attend college or to attend colleges that are less selective than their qualifications justify.

What can be done to help such students get the ticket to college? Clearly, more generous financial aid is part of the answer. The financial barriers to college enrollment among students from low-income families are great -- and growing. Since the early 1970s, the value of federal aid packages for low-income students has fallen precipitously as a percentage of college costs. In the same period, college costs as a portion of family income have remained unchanged for the top 40% of the family income distribution while increasing substantially for low-income families. Without a big increase in federal and state support for means-tested student aid programs, a growing number of qualified students from low-income households will find the door to higher education and upward mobility closed for them and their children.

The nation's colleges and universities should also do more to help children from low-income families. They should mount more aggressive efforts to identify and recruit students from low-income families with strong academic potential early in their high-school careers, providing them with better information about the course requirements and procedures for college admission. Colleges should also expand their financial aid programs for low-income students. Currently, more four-year colleges offer financial aid to athletes and students with "special nonacademic talents" than to disadvantaged students. Finally, more colleges should follow the lead of the Universities of California, Florida, and Washington and design admissions programs that evaluate the academic accomplishments of applicants in light of such obstacles as family income, parental education, and social environment. Doesn't an SAT total score of 1200 combined with an A average mean something different for an applicant raised in a low-income household and educated in a run-down public school than for an applicant from a high-income home and educated in an outstanding private school?

According to a recent survey, two-thirds of Americans support preferences in college admissions for equally qualified low-income students over high-income students. Century Foundation research demonstrates that such economic affirmative action policies would dramatically increase the share of students from the poorest half of the population in the total number of students admitted to the nation's top 146 colleges. Today, that share is just 10%, lower than it would be if admissions decisions were based on grades and test scores alone. Even the most selective colleges have preferential admissions programs for the offspring of their mostly affluent alumni. Surely there is scope for preferential admissions for qualified students who are poor.

Laura D'Andrea Tyson is dean of London Business School.

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