NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Elite Colleges: No Chance for Low-Income Students

October 4, 2013

Every year countless high-achieving students from disadvantaged families flock to colleges that others might call their "safety schools." The good news -- they've reached college. The bad news -- they are heading off to less-selective institutions than they are qualified to attend. The really bad news -- that may increase the odds they will drop out, says Awilda Rodriguez, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

The reality is that the college-recruitment and -application processes for low-income students are like a middle-school dance -- both colleges and students are holding up the walls, curiously staring at each other across the expanse of gym floor. Up to now, researchers, advocates and reformers have paid most of their attention to the students' side of the dance floor, where even the most gifted low-income students and their families often lack information about where they are eligible to attend or how much it will cost them. Scared by high sticker prices, they don't realize how financial aid would reduce the fare.

But the scrutiny should not fall on only the students and their counselors. In the rush to ensure that students are adequately prepared and informed to apply to the best colleges they can get into, less attention has been paid to an equally important variable: colleges' appetite and capacity to enroll low-income students.

  • In the past decade, most selective colleges have sparingly created new freshman seats, while enjoying mounting numbers of applicants.
  • At the same time, many of those colleges have opened their doors only a crack to let in a modest increase of low-income students.
  • Indeed, if colleges do not build capacity to accommodate the growing population of low-income students, it's possible thatadmissions offices at top colleges with applications from qualified low-income students will cut the chances that any one individual will get in or get a good financial-aid package.

While we can -- and should -- improve on the academic preparation and information students receive about college, we will not be able to move the needle on stubborn problems like rising inequality through guidance or better preparation alone. So long as the incentive to enroll low-income students is weak, many colleges will stay off the dance floor with policies and practices that keep down the number of low-income students on their campuses.

Source: Awilda Rodriguez, "At Elite Colleges, No Room at the Dance for Low-Income Students," Chronicle of Higher Education, September 26, 2013.


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