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Engines of Equality or Educators of the Elite?

The Scope of the Issue: Inequality by the Numbers

Education is often seen as a vital engine of social mobility that levels the playing field for low-income students—enabling all Americans to pursue the elusive American Dream. In particular, attending one of the nation’s elite colleges has a lifelong impact: access to positions of leadership; gateways to lucrative careers; and opportunities to maximize one’s human, social, and economic capital (Pallais & Turner, 2006). However, despite promises to increase socioeconomic diversity on campus, low-income students remain extremely underrepresented at the nation’s top universities (Bloomberg, 2014). Elite institutions include those universities with the greatest resources, highest selectivity, and top-tier annual rankings. Aimee YanAimee Yan

Among top colleges and universities, only six percent of students are classified as low-income (Bloomberg, 2014). At Princeton and Harvard, the nation’s two most highly ranked universities, the number of students coming from families earning less than $30,000 shrinks to five percent (Pallais & Turner, 2006). Amid commitments to increase diversity and promises to admit more poor students, top colleges educate roughly the same percentage of low-income students as they did a generation ago (Pérez-Peña 2014). Federal surveys of selective colleges conducted from the 1990s to 2012 measuring the enrollment of poor students found virtually no change. If action is not taken, the persistent underrepresentation of low-income students at the nation’s most well-resourced universities is likely to worsen following the COVID-19 crisis, which has shrunk endowments and financial aid funds in universities across the U.S. (Lee, 2013).

The problem becomes even more apparent when comparing the rates of attendance at elite institutions between students from high and low-income families. At the country’s most competitive colleges, 70 percent of students come from families within incomes in the top 25 percent (Bloomberg, 2014). Among the “Ivy-Plus” colleges (which includes the eight Ivy League colleges, the University of Chicago, Stanford, MIT, and Duke), more students come from families in the top 1% of the income distribution (14.5 percent) than the entire bottom half of the income distribution (13.5 percent) (Chetty et al., 2017). While roughly one in four of the richest students in America attend an elite college, less than one-half of one percent of children from the bottom fifth of American families do the same; in fact, less than half attend any college at all (Aisch et al., 2017). Children whose parents are in the top one percent of the income distribution are an astounding 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League college than those whose parents are in the bottom income quintile (Chetty et al., 2017). 

Broader Implications: Why Underrepresentation Matters

The exclusion of low-income students from elite colleges results in a tremendous loss of talent that translates into social and economic losses at both the individual and societal level (Allen & Engberg, 2011). High-achieving, low-income students are the least represented at top colleges despite the fact that they have the most to gain from attending them. Top-tier universities can serve as “gateways” to positions of leadership and lucrative careers that provide important opportunities for intergenerational mobility and yield high returns for low-income students (Pallais & Turner, 2006). Access to top colleges has a lifelong impact on economic mobility: students who attend these schools have earnings that are 25 percent higher than those who attend less selective colleges—amounting to a difference of $450,000 over the course of a lifetime (Bloomberg, 2014). Further, the underrepresentation of poor students in elite universities translates to their exclusion in leadership positions post-college. The importance of top colleges as causal channels to influential positions is evidenced by the fact that 10 percent of Fortune 500 executives in 2001 attended an Ivy League college and 10 percent of all publicly traded firms in the U.S. have at least one senior manager from Harvard (Zimmerman, 2018). For these reasons, getting low-income students into elite campuses is seen as a critical engine of social mobility with important implications on intergenerational mobility (Pérez-Peña, 2014).

However, the strong link between economic status and ability to attend elite universities remains an entrenched barrier that exacerbates intergenerational inequality (Pallais & Turner, 2006). Universities have a responsibility to educate students regardless of their economic standing. Long-term trends in enrollment at elite institutions indicate that higher education has strayed from this mission, instead serving as a powerful force for reinforcing advantage and passing it on through generations (PĂ©rez-Peña, 2014). Unequal access to elite universities is corrosive to society because it results in resource misallocation at top schools, stunting growth by introducing inefficiencies with rewards unrelated to productivity (Krueger, 2002). For example, the National Center for Education Statistics’ found that the least-affluent students with good grades and test scores enroll  in college at about the same rate as the most-affluent students with “middling academic accomplishments” (Miller, 2018). Unless action is taken, the reproduction of social inequality in America’s top colleges will not only rob the brightest low-income students of unmatched educational opportunities, but also the nation of an invaluable resource.

The Myth of Meritocracy: Addressing Arguments for Meritocratic Admissions Decisions

The myth of meritocracy remains particularly prevalent in the realm of higher education, despite the fact that education access does not reflect meritocratic processes. Proponents of meritocratic college admissions may argue that low-income students are simply not qualified to attend selective institutions because they tend to have lower test scores, grades, or less impressive extracurricular experiences. However, this contention is grounded in the idea that test scores and grades are fair assessments of students’ intelligence and ability. The College Board’s own data show that SAT scores are highly correlated with income, favoring students from families who can afford more test prep and higher quality education (Goldfarb, 2014).

The argument for meritocratic admissions follows that competitive institutions may not best serve the interests of low-income students—potentially harming their future outcomes if students perform poorly and struggle to keep up in a rigorous academic environment. Evidence demonstrates that the opposite is true. When low-income students are accepted to top colleges, they graduate at the same rates as their wealthier peers (Bloomberg, 2014). However, because low-income students have limited resources to navigate the college application process, they are far more likely than their wealthier peers to attend two-year and non-selective four-year institutions—despite the fact that they are equally qualified to attend better-resourced, more selective institutions (Avery & Hoxby, 2013). Getting low-income students into elite campuses is important because low-socioeconomic students are far more likely to graduate from elite colleges than other campuses, as evidenced by the 76 percent graduation rate at elite colleges compared to 44 graduation rate at four-year colleges nationally (Lee, 2013).

Conclusion and Implications / Call of action to the reader

Leaders at top universities must balance competing interests and limited funding to address issues of rankings, finances, and economic diversity. As a whole, elite colleges often prioritize their finances and rankings over ensuring economic diversity on their campuses. This is because influential rankings published by U.S. News and World Report and other organizations reward spending on facilities and faculty without consideration of financial aid or diversity (Pérez-Peña, 2014).

 Amid empty promises to increase diverse socioeconomic representation on campus, top universities have failed to ameliorate the exclusion of low-income students. To fulfill the promise of equal educational access for all, we must demand that universities take further action to ensure the representation of low-income students on campus. Increasing the representation of low-income students at elite colleges is in the best interest of society at large, as the nation as a whole benefits from cultivating the talents of the brightest individuals, regardless of their socioeconomic background. Higher education—and especially elite universities—must fulfill their mission of educating a diverse population of students rather than perpetuating inequality as bastions of privilege. 

Aimee Yan is a sophomore at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.         

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