Alternative Route To Diversity at Elite Schools


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David Leonhardt of the New York Times writes about an interesting initiative aimed at improving socioeconomic diversity at elite colleges.  Due to sticker price shock, many low-income families automatically assume that highly-selective, expensive private colleges are not practical options.  Instead, they opt to go to public schools with lower tuition rates.  While it is true that the tuition for private colleges is much more expensive than public schools, poor families might actually get a better deal at private colleges because financial aid is more substantial.

An experiment was conducted by ECO-Comprehensive Intervention group where they actively sought out high-achieving, low-income students.  With the support of schools, such as Stanford, Princeton, and Northwestern, specific mailings were sent to these targeted families in order to encourage them to apply.  Actually, there were two control groups with similar SAT schools with one low-income group receiving the mailings, while the other did not.

The results showed that the targeted group was much more successful at gaining admission (54%) compared to the non-targeted group (30%).  If more elite institutions of higher learning boosted their efforts in recruiting high-achieving, low-income students, then they would be more successful in achieving economic diversity,

Economic diversity is where a college has a mix of students of varying income groups.  When looking at Ivy League colleges, most of the students come from affluent families due to its enormous cost.  This is problematic because it is a barrier to social mobility, where the U.S. lags most advanced countries.  Lower social mobility is exemplified by the severe rates of income inequality that we have experienced over the last couple of decades.

Previously, elite colleges were mostly interested in racial diversity in order to counteract past discriminatory practices.  With affirmative action, many talented African Americans were able to gain access to selective colleges and have been very influential in the U.S.  American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault and the current President of the United States, Barack Obama are two Ivy League African American graduates that come to mind.  While it is not certain what role affirmative action played in the admission of either, Harvard’s increased focus on attracting more minorities helped increase access to an exclusive network, which undoubtedly played a role in their ascension in the corporate and political realms.  Their sustained level of success shatters the stereotype that minorities cannot compete at the highest levels.

Providing preferential treatment based on socioeconomic status will be important with the existence of affirmative action in jeopardy.  The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a challenge to affirmative action and might end it due to a perception that we live in a post-racial society.  Even though one can argue that the legacy of slavery and racial segregation has a negative impact that can be felt through psychological scars and stereotypical behavior that exists today, the intent of affirmative action was always temporary and many Americans feel that the vestiges of discrimination have been eliminated.

However by basing admission decisions on socioeconomic status, that would pass constitutional muster and achieve similar goals due to minorities more likely being low-income than whites.  If that is the case, that can be an effective way to promote social mobility where the U.S. lags many of their peers, while maintaining racial and cultural diversity.

Achieving social mobility is a noble goal that was once a tenet that made America so great.  The U.S. used to be known as the land of great opportunity where one can rise to great heights from humble beginnings.  Unfortunately, those opportunities are scarce due to inequitable access to education and unstable family structures.  These environmental barriers are analogous to two baseball players where one faces tough conditions with inferior equipment, while the other enjoys ideal conditions with superior equipment.

Would an affluent student score as well as a comparative poor student on the SAT if they had limited access to enhanced test preparatory services or received less support and encouragement from their parents?

If your answer is no, then supporting preferential treatment based on socioeconomic factors would be one way to level the playing field.

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