NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 29, 2009

A great many gifted and motivated young people are excluded from college for no other reason than their ability to pay and we have failed seriously to confront this problem, says Columbia University humanities professor Andrew Delbanco.  Not so, says Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews.

According to Mathews, Delbanco's conclusion rests on data from the 2002 "Empty Promises" report by the federal Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance.  The study estimated that more than 160,000 students with annual family incomes below $50,000 qualified for college admission but did not attend a two-year community college because of financial barriers.

However, the report didn't identify any of those students and its data don't make Delbanco's case, says Mathews:

  • The report's definition of college-qualified -- a 2.7 grade point average or an 820 combined math and verbal score on the SAT -- did not match Delbanco's portrait of gifted and motivated applicants.
  • Moreover, the problem is not colleges putting up too many financial obstacles in the way of bright kids, but public school systems failing to give many potentially successful high-schoolers the academic skills and working habits they need for college.
  • Average reading and math achievement for 17-year-olds has not noticeably improved in the past 30 years and low-income students with good brains continue to perform poorly in large part because they attend high schools run by people who don't try very hard to teach them.

So when the poor but gifted and motivated students Delbanco describes materialize, high school teachers load them up with awards and counselors decide which of many interested colleges might be best for them, says Mathews. 

Nevertheless, staying in college is still a challenge for them.  Even in the worst of circumstances, their teachers and counselors find community colleges for them and help them stay on track.  Doing anything less, given the rarity of such students, would be inconceivable to the educators, concludes Mathews. 

Source: Jay Mathews, "Do you Know a High-Achieving Student Kept From College Because of Money?" Washington Post, July 27, 2009; based upon: Andrew Delbanco, "The Universities in Trouble," New York Review of Books, Vol. 56, No. 8, May 14, 2009.

For text: 

For Delbanco text:


Browse more articles on Education Issues