Where Should the Talented Poor Attend College?

Arguments for and against elite schools for high-achieving, low-income students

In his March 17 column (“Better Colleges Failing to Lure Talented Poor”), David Leonhardt of The New York Times wrote about a study that found that only 34 percent of high-achieving students in the bottom quartile of family income enrolled in one of the nation’s 238 most selective colleges, as compared to 78 percent of high-achieving students in the top quartile of family income.

One conclusion is that elite schools, for all their rhetoric, are failing to recruit an economically diverse entering class of students.

A second, and more profound, conclusion is that high-achieving, low-income students are significantly disadvantaged by not being recruited by elite schools because the lower ranked colleges they do attend have lower graduation rates: “Many students who attend a local college do not graduate,” Leonhardt wrote. “Those who do graduate can miss out on the career opportunities that top colleges offer.”

But a second article in The New York Times (“For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in a Hard Fall”) on December 23, 2012, seems to come to a very different conclusion. Telling the story of three high-achieving, low-income students from Galveston, Texas, writer Jason DeParle found that after four years, none had earned a four-year degree, and only one was still enrolled in college. One had attended Emory, and left well short of graduation with $60,000 in debt. A second graduated from a local community college, but never transferred to a four-year school. A third is on track to graduate from a state school after her fifth year, with more than $44,000 in loans (see my blog post of January 14 for more details).

Of course, these are two very different stories. The first is a large-scale study; the second focuses on just three students. But the second story follows actual students during their four years following high school; the first story is an analysis of demographics.

Is it possible to reconcile the conclusions made in these two articles?

Missing from the first article is any consideration of the cost of education, whereas cost is at the heart of the second article. Why do high-achieving, low-income students tend to do better at elite schools than they do at less selective institutions? Let me count the ways:

  1. Elite schools (mostly private) are, by and large, significantly wealthier than less selective institutions (many of which are public). They are able to be far more generous with institutional aid, removing (or at least sharply reducing) a primary contributor to non-completion: debt.
  2. Elite schools are highly selective. Their students persist and graduate at very high rates because they have been selected on the basis of their likelihood to do both. Less selective schools by definition offer admission to many students who present some level of risk for failure. Given the difference in admission standards, it would be unreasonable to assume that both types of schools would have comparable graduation rates.
  3. The culture of elite schools is built on the expectation of success, not the fear of failure. Students entering that culture quickly adopt its values; high-achieving, low-income students, out-numbered as they are at elite schools by high-achieving, high-income students, become used to the prospect of success.
  4. The reputation of the elite schools is based in part on high graduation rates. There is no expectation on their part that students will drop out short of a degree. Less selective institutions have no such expectation.

So high-achieving, low-income students should strive to be admitted by elite schools, right? Well, it’s not that simple. Consider:

  1. A primary concern for any student should be the amount of debt he or she will accumulate. In the absence of significant institutional grants, low-income students should be very attentive to how much they will have to borrow, regardless of the reputation of the school.
  2. High-achieving, low-income students often feel out of place at elite schools, where almost everyone is high achieving – but also relatively wealthy. Constant reminders of one’s lack of affluence can be very wearing, and a contributor to dropping out.
  3. How far away from home is this elite school? Most students attend colleges within three hours of home. Geographic separation, with limited resources to return home for long weekends, can also contribute to a sense of not belonging, leading to dropping out.
  4. Success at college is more a function of learning to work hard than of having been a good student in high school. If the high-achieving, low-income student went to a high school that was average at best – and that is commonly the case – did that student develop a serious work ethic in high school, or was it easy for him or her to earn good grades without much effort? Elite colleges are full of bright people who went to excellent high schools where they competed with many other strong students and generally developed a strong work ethic.
  5. Finally, and most important, does the elite college feel to the student like a place that can be his or her academic home? The biggest mistake students make is to choose a college based on its national ranking instead of where the student feels most welcome and at ease. Being miserable for four years, just to have a famous name at the top of one’s diploma, isn’t worth it. For example, employers think that internships and work experience is four times more important than the reputation of the college when they make hiring decisions (the topic of a future blog).

So should elite colleges make more of an effort to find high-achieving, low-income students? Sure – but let’s remember that many of these schools currently admit only 5 to 10 percent of their applicants. Very few of these colleges are interested in becoming larger, so more applications from high-achieving, low-income students will not result in a dramatic change in the demographics of these campuses. There are already too many prospective students trying to fit into too few seats: admission to elite colleges is like a game of musical chairs on steroids. Ten or 20 applicants will be disappointed for every one made happy by an acceptance letter.

And that’s why we need to rethink what we mean when we say “best” in reference to a college. More on this next time.