Thinking–All Wrong–About Low-income Students

Maybe, I thought to myself, the problem is that we allow people who really have no concept of how higher education works to have too much say in the discussion.  Higher education is a fairly esoteric little world; even accountants find it hard to move to a job in a university because the way we do things is so different compared to the rest of civilization.  And before I begin, I admit: This might be the problem.

Warning: There are a lot of links here, and if you want to understand my points, you’re going to have to do a lot of reading and synthesizing. If the unexamined life is not worth living, then the unexamined newspaper article might not be worth reading.

This article in the New York Times, titled Generation Later, Poor Are Still Rare at Elite Colleges is a great example. I suppose most people could read it and think, “Yeah, that makes sense.”  And yet, at almost every turn, there’s something that’s just flat out wrong, or, at least a conclusion not supported by the data or my experience (for what the latter is worth.)

Let’s start with the headline, and that word: Elite, a word that appears ten times in the article.  What, exactly, does it mean?  It probably means “selective” although it’s not clear.  Harvard is elite, of course, but not as elite as it used to be, if you believe the numbers.  As I’ve written before, our collective fascination with the term “selective” (an input measure) as a indicator of something important continues to baffle me.  Regardless, this tiny little sliver of the higher education world still fascinates us, and, I believe distracts us from the colleges where we do most of the working and paying and living and dying.  (That link is just for fun.)

We’re told that “This is partly because students are more likely to graduate and become leaders in their fields if they attend competitive colleges.”  Read this, about Malcolm Gladwell’s discussion of the difference between selection effects and treatment effects.  He says it very well: Social scientists distinguish between what are known as treatment effects and selection effects. The Marine Corps, for instance, is largely a treatment-effect institution. It doesn’t have an enormous admissions office grading applicants along four separate dimensions of toughness and intelligence. It’s confident that the experience of undergoing Marine Corps basic training will turn you into a formidable soldier. A modelling agency, by contrast, is a selection-effect institution. You don’t become beautiful by signing up with an agency. You get signed up by an agency because you’re beautiful. Sound familiar?  Change beauty to wealth.  Read again.

Second, the continual sense of surprise that somehow–against all odds–kids from low-income families appear to be, actually, not dumb.  From the article: “there are many high school seniors from low-income homes with top grades and scores: twice the percentage in the general population as at elite colleges.”  Mercy, who’d ever have thunk that? You think I’m exaggerating, of course, but consider these two snippets of wisdom, one I heard in a room of 200 or so people, and one from the Chronicle of Higher Education.  

First, a dean of admission at one of the Ivy League Institutions said this (from my memory, so not verbatim, but I’ve asked enough people who were there, and they all agree): “We spend all our time at <Ivy League Institution> trying to recruit low-income students, which we define as coming from family incomes of under $60,000.  (As an aside, the median family income in the US is about $55,000. But I digress.) But you have to remember, at <Ivy League Institution> you have to be able to write.  You have to be able to work on your own.  And you have to do an independent project.  And there just aren’t enough low-income students who can do that work.” (Emphasis mine, although it was of course, the punchline of the story.)  Second, Harry Lewis, former Dean of Harvard College, writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “What’s appalling is that so few low-income students can do college-level work anywhere. For example, in my home state, where people supposedly care about education, only 115 of 343 high schools had average total SAT scores above the “college and career ready” threshold of 1580. The lower-performing schools are, of course, disproportionately those in low-income districts. You would have to do more than redistribute admissions slots the way you want to redistribute wealth—”As far as I’m concerned, that money [the trillions accumulated by the 1 percent] belongs to the rest of us”—before you’ll have English professors at Harvard and Yale teaching Middlemarch to kids with 400 verbals.”  Of course, the equation of SAT scores–which really predict wealth a lot better than they predict freshman grade point–and academic ability is another matter altogether. 

Maybe–just maybe–the term “elite” means “uncluttered by poor people.”  And maybe that’s the problem?

There are also statements in the article that show a lack of understanding about how higher education finance is done: “Colleges generally spend 4 percent to 5 percent of their endowments per year on financial aid, prompting some administrators to cite this rough math: Sustaining one poor student who needs $45,000 a year in aid requires $1 million in endowment devoted to that purpose; 100 of them require $100 million. Only the wealthiest schools can do that, and build new laboratories, renovate dining halls, provide small classes and bid for top professors.”

Ugh.  So. Much. Wrong.  First, colleges may spend 4%-5% of the endowment value every year, but it’s likely very little of that is actually spent on financial aid.  There are several reasons for this, the first being that much of endowment income is restricted to certain types of expenditures.  The second is that most financial aid is not an expense like salaries or utilities; it’s a contra-revenue, or a discount.  The third is that the actual net cost of an average student is far less than the sticker price; and the fourth is the assumption, debated elsewhere, and too much for this blog post, that “top professors”–many of whom almost never see an undergraduate–should be a priority in the first place. (And no, I’m not saying universities don’t need high quality faculty.)

Of course, no article on the state of low-income kids would be complete without explicit or tacit swipes at enrollment management, and there are at least two here.  The first is subtle, suggesting that “merit aid” is the problem, despite the fact that universities that give “merit aid” (which is a meaningless term anyway on its face) enroll, on average more poor students, probably precisely because they give merit aid.  Additionally, we apparently don’t enroll poor kids because of enrollment management, if you ask Michael Bastedo of the University of Michigan: “But enrollment management is so sophisticated that they know pretty clearly how much each student would cost.”

And finally, we have reference to my old arch-nemesis, “Need-blind admission,” which I’ve written several times before, does not exist. “You can make big statements about being accessible, and have need-blind admissions and really low net prices for low-income kids, but still enroll very few of those low-income kids, by doing minimal outreach,” said Catharine Bond Hill, president of Vassar College. “There has to be a commitment to go out and find them.”

And yet, it’s so hard to find them. Apparently.  If you’re looking mostly in New England prep schools, for sure.

Some hints about what the problem might be:

I believe many of the factors that exclude low-income students have a lot to do with things other than money, and they start with unseen and unquestioned assumptions people make.  As Morton Schapiro states accurately and with a bit of delicious irony: 

“I think we were a little naïve,” said Morton O. Schapiro, president of Northwestern University, a former president of Williams College and, like Dr. Hill at Vassar, an economist specializing in the economics of higher education. “Cost remains a barrier, but so does perception”, he said, adding, “It’s a psychology and sociology thing, as well as a pricing thing.”

Whether he means on the part of the students or on the part of the university is, I suspect, subject to interpretation.  But if I had to bet, I know where I’d put my money.

13 thoughts on “Thinking–All Wrong–About Low-income Students

  1. John: you hit the several nails right on the head. It seems to be the right and privilege of people outside of the academic world to make sweeping statements/judgments about things as they perceive them to be, without really understanding how is works. Excellent piece.


  2. I appreciate your responding, Jon, with characteristic thought, insight, and humor to a mainstream article that has problematic assertions and demonstrates where what used to be called journalism seems to be headed — the delivery of planned conclusions that a writer subsequently splices with quotes appearing to support a case. It’s a shame because the piece on which you focus deserves and needs the writer to wrestle with terms and contentions (rather than to apply them like bandaids) to do justice to important subjects of institutional vision, commitment to diversity, allocation of limited resources, and appropriateness of educational programs for students served.


  3. Jon, I hope you’ll send this as an op-ed contribution to NYT and see if they’ll print it. Thank you for your clarity of thought and expression, as always, in taking on this and other substantive issues.


  4. If only the NYT writers had contacted more people who do the work first. That seems to be a common problem. Let’s
    make assumptions about other people and their jobs, and not contact a variety of people in the trenches.


  5. Reblogged this on academiapecunia and commented:
    Very good read on the issue of admissions at “elite” universities today. And the author is spot on – the backing articles are key to understanding this highly complicated topic.


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