Still Forgotten: Low Income Students At Selective Colleges

Despite a great flurry of activity to expand financial aid at selective colleges over the past several years, a new study by the Chronicle of Higher Education reported this gloomy bottom line: “Top Colleges Admit Fewer Low-Income Students.” As someone who has worked for more than a decade to push colleges to enroll more economically disadvantaged kids of all races, the news was disappointing, though not altogether surprising. For years, elite colleges have assembled freshmen classes that include upper-middle class and wealthy students of all races and declared themselves to be diverse. New financial aid policies alone were unlikely to change that pattern.

The Chronicle study found that the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants declined at the wealthiest 75 private and 39 public colleges and universities between the 2004-05 and 2006-07 academic years. In the 75 private institutions with the largest endowments, 13.1% of undergraduates in 2006-07 received Pell Grants, which typically go to students from families earning less than $40,000 a year, down from 14.3% two years earlier. In 39 public institutions with endowments of $500 million or more, 18% were Pell Grant recipients in 2006-07compared with 19.6% two years earlier.

The news is particularly troubling given the high profile efforts announced in recent years by some 40 top colleges and universities to provide more generous financial aid to struggling families. Why did less, rather than more, economic diversity follow? The primary reason is that aid policies are only part of what drives enrollment. In order to receive aid, low-income and working class students must first be admitted. Because such students often attend lousy schools, even highly talented and hard working students – who have tremendous potential – don’t look as good on paper as their more privileged colleagues. Research finds that while colleges and universities give substantial preferences to under-represented minorities (blacks, Latinos and Native Americans) and other groups, they give basically no preference to economically disadvantaged students, despite claims to the contrary.


A 2004 Century Foundation study, conducted by Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose, found that racial preferences triples the combined representation for African American and Latino students at the 146 most selective institutions, from 4% who would get in based strictly on grades and test scores to 12%. The bottom economic half, meanwhile, receives no preference: grades and test scores would predict an 12% representation and in fact they have a 10% representation.

Research by former Princeton president William Bowen, a strong supporter of race-based affirmative action, likewise found that at 19 selective institutions studied, within a given SAT range, being a recruited athlete increased the chance of admissions by 30 percentage points, being an underrepresented minority by 28 percentage points and being a legacy by 20 percentage points. By contrast, poor kids receive “essentially no break in the admissions process; they fare neither better nor worse than other applicants.”

Why do universities provide large admissions preferences to some groups and not to others? Part of it has to do with university politics. In admissions meetings, coaches lobby for athletes; alumni and development officials lobby for legacies and students whose parents might give large donations; and diversity officers lobby for minority students. No one lobbies for low-income and working class students.

The press, too, is more likely to focus concern on racial diversity than economic diversity. There was a strong press attention (appropriately so), when UCLA saw the black representation in its freshman class drop to just 2% not long ago. A commission was formed and action was taken that subsequently improved the numbers. But there is no comparable mobilizing on behalf of low income students of all races. Carnevale and Rose’s Century Foundation study found that at the most selective 146 colleges and universities, 74% of students come from the wealthiest socioeconomic quarter of the population, but just 3% from the poorest quarter. Put differently, one is 25 times as likely to run into a rich kid as a poor kid on the nation’s selective campuses. The underrepresentation of low income nationally (by a factor of eight) is greater than the under representation of blacks at UCLA (a factor of six) was, yet there has been no comparable outcry.

All the incentives push against low income and working class students. Any break in admissions lowers median SAT scores (which reduces an institution’s US News & World Report rankings), but enrolling low-income white and black students adds no more racial diversity points than having a comparable number of upper-income whites and blacks. And enrolling less advantaged students cost colleges a whole lot more in financial aid. So it is not surprising that admissions officers allow to perpetuate a lack of class diversity which they would never tolerate with respect to race.

On this issue, universities are strikingly out of touch with the American public. By about 2:1 Americans oppose racial preferences, but by 2:1 they support preferences for low income applicants of all races. The broader public cares about fairness – and thinks that low income students who have overcome obstacles deserve a break, while wealthier students of any race don’t.

What will spur universities to care about economic diversity? Some leaders, like Amherst president Anthony Marx, and former Harvard president Lawrence Summers, have shown a genuine commitment to the issue. But there is some evidence to suggest that university leaders may become most interested in economic diversity when they are unable to use race-conscious admissions and instead seek low-income students as a way of providing racial diversity indirectly, given the correlation between race and class in American society.

One fascinating finding from the Chronicle’s research is that public universities in states where affirmative action has been banned tend to have substantial amounts of economic diversity. In California and Washington, voters eliminated race-based affirmative action programs at public universities by ballot initiative in the 1990s. In Texas, the legislature adopted a plan to provide automatic admissions to students in the top 10% of their high school class after a Circuit court struck down race-based affirmative action. And in Florida, race-based preferences were banned by executive order. (Michigan also eliminated affirmative action in November 2006, but the move came too late to be reflected in the data examined by the Chronicle.) In the ranking of 39 public institutions, half (six of the top 12) of the most economically diverse universities are located in California, Florida, Texas and Washington. State demographic factors surely play into the relative economic diversity at leading public universities, but it seems likely that officials are also more likely to pay attention to economic diversity when they cannot easily make university classes racially diverse by admitting upper middle class students of color.

If properly structured to reflect the variety of obstacles students face, a class-based affirmative action program can produce substantial racial diversity as a byproduct. Carnevale and Rose’s study found that using factors such as parental income, education and occupation, along with school level poverty, would boost the proportion of African American and Latino students from 4% under an admissions system relying solely on grades and test scores to 10%, somewhat shy of the current 12% representation at the most selective 146 institutions. On average, however, black and Latino students face additional obstacles that are fair to consider – growing up in a single parent family, a family with low or negative net worth, or a neighborhood with concentrated poverty – that should boost representation further.

Moving forward, is it possible to forge a new bargain between liberals and conservatives on the issue of economic diversity? In his recent debate with Hillary Clinton in Philadelphia, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama declared that his own privileged daughters do not deserve affirmative action preferences, and that low-income white and minority student do. This statement represented an extraordinary shift from the traditional Democratic position on racial preferences.

But conservatives need to give ground too. A few years ago, I was asked to speak at a conference sponsored by the Bush Administration on race-neutral alternatives to affirmative action. There was strong support from the audience for the concept of class-based affirmative action, but when I pointed out that it would take more federal resources to provide aid to low-income students, there was silence in the room.

Should Obama be elected and follow through on his support for class-based affirmative action, conservatives would need to support more financial aid to make the bargain work. So my question to my conservative friends is: Deal or no deal?

If conservatives and liberals don’t come together on this issue, it’s likely that the next Chronicle analysis on low-income students will be just as disappointing.

Richard Kahlenberg

Richard D. Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation.

8 thoughts on “Still Forgotten: Low Income Students At Selective Colleges

  1. All this assumes that these students would be more capable than their qualifications would indicate – something that I doubt very much.
    What these low income students could have, would have or might have achieved had they been born in a different income category is irrelevant; the only factor that should matter are they credentials, right here and right now. If they do not have the best qualifications, admit a better qualified student instead, and stop worrying about hypothetical universes.

  2. I think that as a matter of public policy, public resources should not be wasted on maintaining country clubs — even the ones that call themselves universities.
    If we want to spread the light of learning across the land we need to find better ways to do it.
    Anyone who thinks that sending poor children to elite colleges has any greater purpose than flattering the self regard of college administrators should read Walter Kirn’s bitter memoir of his years at Princeton, “Lost in the Meritocracy: How I traded an education for a ticket to the ruling class” by Walter Kirn in the Atlantic Monthly for January/February 2005.
    I am not defending the elite colleges. It is long past time to stop thinking of them as anything other than institutions for the benefit of their members (the administration and the faculty).
    Their hermetic learning, anti-American leftism, grant grubbing and sanctimony need a reply. I say terminate their tax exemptions and charitable deduction privileges, and require them to split the federal grant recipient activities from all others so we can find out where our taxpayer dollars are going. Abolish tenure contracts. Stop using their degrees as qualifications for employment and professional licensing.
    Learning can be spread outside the ivy covered walls. Lectures and other materials can be disseminated via the internet. Discussion, exercises and tutoring can be done through community colleges. Certification of results can be undertaken by professional organizations or quangos.
    Hoping to reform the system by small changes is acquiescence to the status quo. It will not achieve any real social benefits.

  3. At UCLA, there are many students who transfer in after two years in the local community college system. As a result, UCLA has substantial economic diversity compared to most research universities of similar reputation.
    Unfortunately, as the New York Times documented a while ago, there is a substantial group of race-obssessed activists doing everything they can to circumvent this policy (as well as the anti-racial-preference clause of the state constitution)–providing private admission assistance only available to African Americans, trying to get more “subjective” factors considered by sympathetic admissions officers, etc.

  4. I don’t see why this needs to be a federal thing. The colleges themselves can just start doing this. Especially those colleges with the billion-dollar endowments.
    Because it seems to me that at the state school I went to, there was plenty of economic diversity. If Harvard has an economic diversity problem, they can pay to fix it.

  5. Where is it written that the economically disadvantaged students should attend only the richest universities. I would rather they attend a university where they can get a good mix of groupings than put them in a place where their lack of money puts them at a huge disadvantage with regard to the other students and also where they are far more likely to fail. Let them get the basics where they don’t have to be the token poor person and then let them attend the better graduate schools once they have proved they can do the work.
    Your idea might work for many students but I am sure that many more would flunk out because they could not keep up with the richer students on the other part of the collegial experience. Just as an example check out the results of poor students who get placed in top drawer law schools by bending the requirements for them and then check out how many of them flunk out aws opposed to their attending maybe the second level law schools where they do pass and then also pass the bar exams. I would rather that than lose the students by failing them from schools they do not have the base to qualify for.

  6. First, you need to show me where increased federal tuition subsidies have made college more affordable, rather than inflating the price.

  7. There’s another dimension to this problem that isn’t addressed in your article: the ability of the kids that are accepted into a college to perform acceptably in class (IOW, can they hack it?). IIRC, the reason that Texas’ move to accept the top percentage from the high school class was that those were the ones getting the most out of their educational system and the ones most likely, therefore, to succeed at a higher level no matter what their race. Have you looked at the rates of students who flunk out of college based on 1)race and 2) placement within the acceptance group? What good is it, from an objective viewpoint, to be accepted into, say UCLA, by the skin of your teeth through preferences if you’re going to flunk out your first semester, if you could go to LMU and pass? Moreover, if you end up flunking out of one university, how likely are you to be motivated and able to get into another? One of my college roommates got in (just barely) and made something like a 0.8 GPA (combination of slacker friends, allure of partying, and just plain not getting up in time for morning classes). First and only semester. At a community college (considering this was just general studies, not quite sure exactly which degree to persue), this mistaken semester would have been a lot less costly (quite a lot of aid comes in the form of student loans) and possibly could have been salvaged at the point in time that said roommate realized things weren’t going well.

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