In October 2014, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a $10 million investment to assist talented high school students of modest means gain access to “top” colleges and universities — “top” being defined as institutions with graduation rates consistently in excess of 70 percent. (There are now 270 institutions meeting that criterion.) Research had shown that less than half of high-achieving, low-income students applied to any “top” school, and this initiative was meant to address that problem.
In the press release, David Coleman, president of the College Board, said, “We cannot stand by while remarkable low-income students do not access the opportunities they have earned.” Mr. Bloomberg himself saw this as a worthy project because, as he said, “America is the world’s greatest meritocracy” and we need to make sure “that family income does not prevent talented and qualified students from applying to top colleges.” Both gentlemen were arguing that more high-achieving, low-income students needed to be encouraged to apply to “top” colleges. On the other hand, Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute, said, “Top universities and colleges…cannot fully succeed…if they don’t enroll American’s top talent from all socioeconomic backgrounds to maximize our nation’s potential.” He put colleges and universities on notice that it is their responsibility to admit more talented low-income students. That is, it’s not just that more such students should apply; “top” schools need to accept them.
The press release itself, however, went beyond just arguing for fairness in the admissions process to note the economic benefit to the individual student: “Students who attend these [top] schools have earnings that are about 25 percent higher than those who attend less selective colleges.” I’ll examine the validity of that argument shortly.
Over the succeeding two years, several actions were anticipated, including the development of a cohort of advisers who would be matched with students of low and moderate means to provide guidance; the creation of research funds to allow analysis of the impact of the initiative; and the funding and convening of a task force of college and university presidents who would, guided by the Aspen Institute, “develop actionable recommendations [to] enroll and graduate substantially more of these high-achieving, low- and moderate-income students.”
On Dec. 13, 2016, Ithaka S+R (a nonprofit that provides advice and guidance to the academic community), in conjunction with the Aspen Institute, announced the creation of the American Talent Initiative, a program that is the outgrowth of the Bloomberg Philanthropies grant. At present, 30 “top” colleges and universities (21 private, nine public) have signed on; more are expected in the coming years, but only institutions with graduation rates above 70 percent will be eligible.
This press release was picked up nationally the same day by, among others, Inside Higher Ed and David Leonhardt in his column in The New York Times. Mr. Leonhardt was especially effusive in his praise of the initiative.
And why wouldn’t he be? What’s not to like about a push for greater economic inclusiveness in the makeup of the freshman classes of very good colleges and universities, many of which have historically enrolled only a handful of low-income students?
As it happens, there are quite a few problems, both practical and theoretical, about this initiative. Consider:
• The only good school is a “top” school. Think of the “top” schools, collectively, of representing the summit of Mount Everest. It is the highest mountain in the world! No other mountain is its equal! Only the very best mountaineers can ever expect to reach its summit, and therefore the cachet of having done so is particularly strong, because the number of successful climbers is so small. Many may aspire, but few will succeed. This is a terrible metaphor for higher education, and yet it’s how many people think about college choice: “I must climb Mount Everest, or live my life as a failure. I must be admitted to a ‘top’ school or have everyone see me as a loser.” Surely, what we most want for our children is the opportunity for them to receive a great education that prepares them for success in a career and in life, as opposed to valuing most not their college experience but the name of the school that appears on the diploma.
• Capacity problems. American Talent Initiative’s goal is to increase the numbers of high-achieving, low-income students entering “top” colleges by 50,000 over the next 10 years—and there are currently at least 12,500 such students graduating from high school each year. These are not small numbers. How will the “top” colleges and universities accommodate the influx? The nine public universities that now each enroll an average of more than 29,000 undergraduates can presumably grow (although one wonders if a campus of such enormous size is the best learning environment for high-achieving, low-income students), but the 21 private colleges and universities (averaging 4,500 undergraduates each) do not intend to grow their enrollment — meaning that the high-achieving, low-income students will displace some of the high-achieving, higher-income students (or legacy students) these schools are now enrolling. For these schools, it is a zero sum game. In order to create more winners, there have to be more losers — and the competition for slots will be even more intense, and the pressure on high school seniors to gain admission to “top” schools will be even more intense and traumatic that it is at present. Just what high school seniors need: more stress.
• Why not expand capacity? Surely, the solution is to create a better balance between supply and demand: there are presently too many very good students trying to gain access to a limited number of freshmen seats. Why aren’t we working harder to expand the number of “top” schools? If the criterion is a graduation rate of 70 percent, can’t we create incentives for schools to retain and graduate more of their students in order to reach the 70 percent level? At Roger Williams University, through specific programs and practices we have implemented over the past five years, we have raised our freshman-to-sophomore retention rate from 78 percent to 84 percent, and our four-year graduation rate from 58 percent to 64 percent (for the entering class of 2012). Since the 70 percent target is a measure of the six-year graduation rate, it is entirely possible that RWU’s entering class of 2012 will reach that figure by May of 2018. Moreover, since subsequent classes are being retained at even higher rates than the entering class of 2012, RWU is not far off demonstrating a consistent graduation rate above 70 percent.
Will that make RWU a “top” school? Well, yes, in the sense that we will qualify, according to the criterion used by the American Talent Initiative. But the more important point is that a substantial number of colleges and universities could reach this figure if they tried actively to do so — and more “top” schools would reduce the anxiety of high school seniors (and their parents) seeking admission only to a “top” college or university.
At the very least, efforts by schools to reach graduation rates of 70 percent or more would respond to those who think that American higher education currently consists of just two categories: a relative handful of truly exceptional universities, separated by a giant chasm from a huge number of institutions unworthy of a second look by any talented and ambitious student. We need to create more universities that are seen as exceptional; to return to an earlier metaphor, we need more mountains to accommodate those who aspire to climb them.
• “Top” is not properly defined. For purposes of this study, a “top” school is one that consistently has a graduation rate over 70 percent. But this relatively high graduation rate is less a function of the quality of the educational program than it is the result of a rigorous winnowing of the applicant pool. These are schools that are designated “more selective” or “most selective,” meaning that they accept less than 30 percent of their applicant pool (in some cases, less than 10 percent), and the students who are accepted are almost invariably exceptionally well qualified, as demonstrated by high school GPA, class rank and test scores. Any college or university with large numbers of such students can expect to see high retention and graduation rates. Indeed, if one knows the academic index (test scores and GPA) of the freshman class, it is relatively easy to predict that class’s graduation rate. In other words, a “top” school is a school with many “top” students, not necessarily the best academic program.
Surely a case can be made that a better definition of a “top” school is one that shows the greatest academic gains (using pre-tests and post-tests), or one that demonstrates the greatest transformative results, or one that shows, from surveys, the highest level of student satisfaction — all of which are more directly related to the quality of the educational experience than is the level of selectivity at the time of admission.
• Is there an economic payoff from graduating from a “top” school? As I mentioned earlier, one argument for creating greater access to the top schools for high-achieving, low-income students is that they will have an economic benefit — perhaps as much as 25 percent greater lifetime earnings, as compared to students who graduated from “lesser” schools. Those earnings data come from surveys of graduates from many different schools, and they are intended to identify the schools with the greatest ROI — return on investment, meaning earnings relative to actual cost of their college degree.
The problem is that, once again, one of attributing results — in this case, income — to the school itself rather than to the relative success of the individual graduates. Might we reasonably assume that some number of students currently attending “top” schools are the sons and daughters of very affluent parents? Might a higher proportion of the graduates of these schools be brought into the family business, or be encouraged to attend graduate and professional schools, or be set up for success in other ways? There is no factual proof that high-achieving, low-income students themselves will benefit financially from attending “top” schools, only that their prospective classmates have historically done quite well financially after graduation.
• But are there any risks for high-achieving, low-income students at “top” colleges and universities? Actually, there are. Many students are painfully aware of whether or not they “fit in.” Are their classmates like them? Do they share a common philosophy and view of life? Is the college likely to be a “second home”? Some low-income students, even if academically high-achieving, do not thrive on campuses where everyone is as bright as they are — and where the other students are far more affluent, with more expensive clothes, cars and tastes. Increasing the numbers of high-achieving, low-income students at “top” schools may not be the panacea it is touted as being.
So what should high-achieving, low-income students do? Any prospective student should certainly consider schools for which he or she is academically qualified; choosing an institution where one is well matched intellectually with one’s classmates is important to consider. But ultimately students should select a school based on their sense of how well they will fit in, whether they believe they will be happy and enjoy their college years, as opposed to forcing themselves to be something they are not, in the belief that the prestige of the college is the only criterion that matters. People are ultimately the happiest when they buy shoes that fit and are comfortable, not when they force their feet into an attractive shoe that is the wrong size and hurts their feet. Perhaps it is wrong to compare buying shoes to selecting a college, but fit matters a lot in both instances in terms of ultimate satisfaction and quality of life.
And “fit” is the paramount issue, because the consequences of choosing the “wrong” school are profound: Nationally, only 67 percent of students return for their sophomore year to the college where they started as freshmen, and within six years of when they started as freshmen, only about half of all students graduate from the campus at which they began their studies. A student’s first priority should be select a school where they are most likely to graduate; a prestigious name on the diploma should be a secondary consideration.