College Access Still Tied to Income, Report Says
Low-income students face disadvantage in college preparedness
By Garry Boulard
Income, or lack thereof, may still be the single most important factor determining both college access and completion, according to a soon-to-be published study by the Mellon Foundation.
“Is the glass half full or half empty?” Dr. William G. Bowen, the primary author of the study and president of the Mellon Foundation, asked during a recent lecture at the University of Virginia. “It is at least half full if we focus on the considerable progress that has been made in extending access to top colleges and universities to well-prepared students from poor families.”
But Bowen said he regarded that same glass as half empty when taking into consideration what he called “the powerful underlying relationship between socioeconomic status and elements of college preparedness.”
The former president of Princeton University based his remarks on data he has gathered from 19 colleges and universities — including five private Ivy League schools — that looked at admission, enrollment and academic rates for low-income students.
Overall, Bowen and Martin Kurzweil, a research associate at Mellon, charted the college careers of more than 180,000 students, beginning with the fall semester in 1995. They concluded that while there was no evidence that students coming from the lowest economic quartile did significantly worse than their financially better-off counterparts once they were in college, it was the decisions made or not made by low-income students before college that revealed the greatest contrasts.
“If there is any disadvantage that low-income students have, it is clearly a result of things that are going on a long time before a student even thinks about going to college,” Kurzweil said. “They are not getting involved in the kind of preparation that is necessary for going to college, or even for being competitive as an applicant for going to college.”
The upcoming Mellon report coincides with a number of other recent studies that point to the significant role that income plays in determining whether or not a student attends college.
Dr. Anthony Carnevale, co-author of the 2003 report “Socioeconomic Status, Race/ Ethnicity and Selective College Admissions,” revealed that only 3 percent of the freshmen at 146 selective colleges and universities in the nation came from families in the lowest economic quartile.
In “America’s Untapped Resources: Low-Income Students in Higher Education,” released in 2003, scholar Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation noted that up to 66 percent of the nation’s wealthiest quartile were enrolled in a college within 24 months of graduating from high school. By contrast, only 20 percent of the students from the lowest quartile were enrolled in a college or university during that same period of time.
Kahlenberg also said that among the nation’s most selective schools, 74 percent of the students came from the top economic quartile.
In his address at the University of Virginia, Bowen maintained “preparedness is shaped through the persistent, cumulative development of cognitive skills.” And those skills, he added, include not only such “non-cognitive” qualities as motivations and expectations, but a “practical knowledge about the college admissions process.
“The odds of getting into this privileged pool depend enormously on who you are and how you grew up,” he said.
To compensate for what some educators call the “shortcomings of culture,” Bowen suggested altering admissions standards in order to reflect an applicant’s socioeconomic status: “The most direct alternative is to simply, ‘put a thumb on the scale’ when weighing the qualifications of applicants,” he said.
Bowen, who co-authored The Shape of the River: Long-term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions with Dr. Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, a book that many education scholars say was a landmark work exploring affirmative action, acknowledged that his “thumb on the scale” solution might prove costly to four-year schools.
But he added that any additional expenses were worth the potential results if it meant helping realize what he called “the aspirations of high-achieving young people from modest backgrounds who want to be welcomed within the walls of what are still seen by many as ‘bastions of privilege.'”
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