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catharine bond hill

Vassar College President Catharine Bond Hill

The New York Times ran a powerful July 31 story describing how elite private colleges fail to recruit low-income students. Among the most competitive schools, only 14% of students come from the lower 50% of families by income. This total has not increased in the past two decades, meaning that the nation’s top schools are recirculating the economic elite rather than broadening access to qualified low-income students.

Among those alarmed by this sorry state of affairs is Vassar College President Catharine Bond Hill. Hill told the Times that elite schools with multi-billion dollar endowments should feel “shame” over their failure to recruit low-income students. Disputing private college claims that they have no obligation to serve such students, Hill noted that such schools also receive federal and state grants as well as tax exemptions. Amidst growing inequality and economic unfairness, kudos to Vassar for acknowledging how elite colleges worsen these trends.

The American Dream of social mobility, of people rising from low-income childhoods to affluence in the space of a single generation, is increasingly a myth. And one reason is the disdain many elite colleges have for even bothering to recruit low-income students, a reality Vasser’s President correctly describes as shameful.

Economic v Racial Diversity

That only 14% of students at these elite schools are in the bottom half of family incomes -- that’s the bottom 50%, not the bottom 25% -- speaks volumes. It particularly destroys the longstanding argument by affirmative action opponents that using race as a factor in admissions is not necessary to help secure socioeconomic diversity.

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That specious argument has been made as far back as the Supreme Court’s 1978 Bakke decision, which set the stage for over three decades of legal efforts to eliminate affirmative action. It has proved particularly popular with those who claim to support the ends sought by affirmative action -- a more racially and economically diverse student population -- but not the means -- the use of race-based preferences to ensure this end is actually achieved.

I know from personal experience how many upper middle class white families are absolutely convinced that elite schools impose an unofficial quota on applicants from their demographic while giving huge unwritten preferences for racial minorities and low-income applicants. The new report dispels this pervasive myth. If elite colleges were really giving preferences to lower-income students they would not be accepting 86% from the top 50% of incomes.

A December 2012 report from the National Bureau of Economic Research (The Missing "One-Offs": The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low Income Students) actually found that low-income students are significantly underrepresented in elite schools where they could excel. A major reason? Elite schools lack of specialized recruitment to this deserving population.

Thank goodness there are still college presidents like Vassar’s Hill, whose school not only reflects a commitment to socioeconomic diversity, but who is willing to speak the truth on a subject many college presidents refuse to honestly address. As Hill told the Times, “if young people don’t have an equal shot at getting a great education, we’re going to create a society we’re not very happy with.”

randy shaw

Randy Shaw

There was a time not so long ago when elite colleges felt that they needed to forge greater connections with the broader society. But for an increasing number, those days have passed.

Randy Shaw
Beyond Chron

Thursday, 1 August 2013