Public Relations Masks the Real College-Access Crisis

The wealthiest universities enroll the smallest percentage of low-income students — this has to change.

Recent decisions by wealthy private colleges and universities to drop merit aid and eliminate student loan debt masks the fact that these institutions enroll the smallest percentages of low-income students, and that the real national crisis of access to higher education by students from low- and moderate-income families is likely to be made worse, not better, if other colleges and universities follow.

I hope these moves do result in these institutions enrolling more low-income students. But the hype surrounding the announcements makes it harder for the public and our elected officials to understand the underlying structure of subsidies that exist in American higher education. Blame is being put on colleges and universities for what are really deep and profound failures of public policy in America that are keeping us — the wealthiest nation in the world — from enabling millions of able but low-income students to attend and complete college. This has to change.

Ending merit aid and student loans at a small number of institutions will not change the fact that nationally, highachieving students from low-income families still have no more chance of graduating from college than do lowachievers from high-income families. In their recent book, Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education, Dr. William G. Bowen, Martin A. Kurzweil and Dr. Eugene M. Tobin point out that the wealthiest colleges and universities — those that can best afford the financial aid necessary to enroll large numbers of lowincome students — in fact enroll the smallest percentages of such students.

In their attempt to maintain the highest possible competitive position, these institutions seek to maximize the average test scores of their incoming students. Test scores are highly correlated with family income — the higher the family income, the higher the test scores. Because only students with high test scores apply to these institutions, low-income students are underrepresented in their applicant pools.

At St. Lawrence University, we provide merit aid to about a third of our students — three quarters of whom also receive need-based aid — and our students graduate with a relatively high average debt load. Overall, we award scholarships to over 75 percent of our students, and 20 percent of our students receive federal Pell Grants, which go to students from the lowest quartile of family incomes in America, about double the percentage at a typical wealthy institution. We offer these scholarships because we feel it is our responsibility to educate our share of lowincome students.

Elite institutions do not have to provide merit aid because their academic reputations and wealth allow them to attract high-ability students from high-income families without it. But that means that they have even more flexibility to enroll low-income students than the rest of higher education.

It is only after making exceptions for legacies — children of alumni — some minority groups and recruited athletes (who make up an average of 20 percent of their incoming classes), that these institutions then admit students on a need-blind basis. They have the resources to meet the full financial need of admitted students, which means admitted low-income students can afford to enroll. But they will make up only roughly the same percentage of enrolled students as they are in the qualified applicant pool.

To expand the pool for low-income students, these institutions can and should simply give the same preference to these students as they do for the other groups. Ample research shows that they can do so without diluting the quality of the class.

Despite percentages of low-income students well below the national average, the elites are nevertheless praised by the public and the media for their commitment to low-income students because they have admitted them on a need-blind basis and met their full need. There is the suggestion that if only institutions like mine would follow their lead, all would be well in America on the question of access to college for lowincome students, and this is simply not the case. There is room for more low-income students at top institutions. Enrolling more of them would indeed help solve the access problem. The recent highly publicized financial aid policy changes at wealthy institutions will not.

— Dr. Daniel F. Sullivan is president of St. Lawrence University, in Canton, N.Y., and is the chair of the American Association of Colleges & Universities.

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