On Sunday 25 August, The Boston Globe ran a front-page story entitled “Colleges back off need-blind admissions.” The article describes how colleges such as Wesleyan, Williams, MIT, Cornell and the University of Virginia are reducing their commitment to meet the financial needs of the students they admit – but the story pays particular attention to Tufts University, located in the Boston suburbs.
The timing of this story is interesting, coming as it did at the end of a week where newspapers across the country were reporting on President Obama’s commitment to increase both the affordability and the practicality of a college education in America. How is it that these private schools seem to be going in exactly the opposite direction?
Two recent studies on low-income, high-achieving high school students and the problems they face in gaining admission to elite private schools have attracted considerable attention in both the education and mainstream media.
The first, Expanding College Opportunities for High-Achieving, Low Income Students, by Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Taylor (Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, March 29, 2013) received attention from The New York Times (editorial on April 10, following an article by David Leonhardt on March 16 regarding an earlier study by Dr. Hoxby). The second Hoxby study found that customized information packets, costing about $6 each, sent to low-income, high-achieving students significantly increased the percentage of these students who applied to top-tier colleges. Inside Higher Ed covered this study on April 1, 2013.
The second study, Undermining Pell: How Colleges Compete for Wealthy Students and Leave the Low-Income Behind (Steven Burd, the New America Foundation, May 8, 2013), examined actual data from the 2010-11 academic year for thousands of public and private colleges to determine the average cost for Pell-eligible students at each college and university. The study found that two-thirds of the private institutions charged families earning less than $30,000 per year a net price of over $15,000 a year. As a consequence, the study called for federal action “to ensure that colleges continue to provide a gateway to opportunity.” The Chronicle of Higher Education covered this study on May 8, and The Boston Globe ran a lengthy story that related to the study on May 28.
These two studies are interesting bookends to the same issue: low-income students, even when they are high-achieving in high school, are much less likely to apply to elite schools, and even when they do, they often face insurmountable costs.
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.