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April 6, 2005: Features

Doing more for those with less
A new book widens the debate on admission to elite colleges

By Doug Lederman ’84

Rajiv Vinnakota ’93 walks between two worlds: leafy Princeton, where he has been a member of the Board of Trustees since 2003, and gritty Anacostia, one of the poorest communities in Washington, D.C. It is in the latter world where Vinnakota co-founded the nation’s first urban, public boarding school — a school in which nine of every 10 students come from families living below the poverty line. Last June, the school held its first commencement, and all 21 graduates headed off to four-year colleges, including some of the nation’s most elite universities, Princeton among them.

On the Princeton board, Vinnakota has been a vocal and persistent advocate for students from low-income backgrounds. He sees many young people who have the intellectual capacity, if not the lifelong preparation, to fit in at Princeton and other highly selective colleges — but finds that precious few get the chance.

“An institution of our size and our resources has a moral obligation to educate not only the elite, but those who could become the elite,” Vinnakota says. “And not just for them, but for all of Princeton: There’s no way we can understand what’s going on in our world if we don’t have the chance to interact with people from all walks of life, from inner-city Washington and rural West Virginia.”

He’s not the only Princetonian who feels that way. Princeton is more socioeconomically diverse now than ever before, due in large part to the nationally heralded expansion of its financial aid program over the last six years. But in the eyes of one prominent observer — the University’s former president, William G. Bowen *58 — Princeton and America’s other elite colleges have not gone far enough.

In a book to be published this month by the University of Virginia Press, Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education, Bowen and two co-authors base that conclusion not just on the fact that low-income students, and those who are in the first generation in their families to go to college, are significantly underrepresented at the 19 selective colleges the researchers studied. They also find (“stunningly,” Bowen says) that in direct contrast to a number of other groups — such as minority students, athletes, and alumni children — such students get no clear edge in the admission process. And they argue that these students should.

“I think places like Princeton and Yale have made enormous strides, and deserve real credit for their progress,” Bowen, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, said in a recent interview in his New York office. “But in spite of all the good intentions, and all the hard work these schools have done, the odds of being admitted to one of them today are no higher at a given level of preparation for a student from a poor family or a family without much parental education than they are for a similarly qualified student from a privileged background.”

The institutions have an obligation to do more to open their doors to students of modest means, Bowen argues — to be “engines of opportunity” that close the societal gap between rich and poor, not “bastions of privilege” reinforcing the status quo. He suggests that in making admissions decisions, they should put a “thumb on the scale” for students of modest means, comparable to the edge they now provide for alumni. Doing so, he says, would increase the representation of students from the lowest income quartile to an average of 17 percent, from the current 11 percent.

Since leaving Princeton, Bowen has co-authored several influential books on higher education and admissions issues, including Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values (2003) and The Shape of the River (1998). His new book, like the others, is not about Princeton per se, but the clarion call by the University’s former president is likely to draw additional attention to an issue that increasingly has been on the University’s agenda in recent years. On the heels of the financial aid changes, Princeton is in the midst of an effort to recruit more aggressively and broaden the pool of applicants — a campaign driven in part by the desire to attract and admit more needy students at a time when the University is poised to expand the size of its student body. President Shirley Tilghman believes Princeton is in a unique position among its peer universities to make an impact — and to do it without “cutting into anyone else’s numbers” (read: reducing the number of legacy admits). But she doesn’t plan to do it in quite the way Bowen suggests.

The educational status of low-income Americans is not good. At a time when earnings potential is closely tied to education, those on the bottom of the economic ladder are far less likely to take and do well on the SAT, and to go to college, than their more privileged peers.

At elite institutions, which Tilghman calls “one of the very few levers this society can pull” to help reverse the ever-growing gap between rich and poor, the picture is worse. The Bowen study includes 19 highly selective institutions: five Ivy League universities (Princeton, Columbia, Harvard, Penn, and Yale), 10 liberal arts colleges, and four well-regarded state universities.

At the 19 institutions collectively — which Bowen says generally reflect the situation at each of them — about 11 percent of enrolled students are from families in the bottom fourth of the national economic distribution and about 6 percent have parents who did not attend college. Holding all other things equal, including SAT scores and race, first-generation college students are only marginally more likely than the typical student to be admitted, and low-income students gain no advantage at all. Recruited athletes, minority students, and legacies, meanwhile, are significantly more likely than other students to be admitted. (One forthcoming study by Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade *72, however, finds that three private research universities gave a clear edge in admissions to students whose families earn under $30,000 — although it was a significantly smaller one than they gave to athletes and alumni children.)

Bowen concludes that admission offices at the colleges he studied do not give students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds the same kind of admissions preference they give these other groups, though he believes they are at least as deserving. He is careful to say that class-based preference of the sort he advocates is no substitute for race-based affirmative action, because a sizable number of minority students are not from low-income families.

“We argue that if this [underprivileged] student comes into that pool despite the long odds he or she faces given the economic background, there’s a lot to be said for a nod in the student’s direction,” Bowen says.

Giving low-income students the same nod now given to, say, alumni would have costs, Bowen acknowledges: significantly steeper financial aid spending, and potential political fallout from the fact that additional admissions slots for low-income students generally would come at the expense of alumni, athletes or some other group. That’s a small price to pay, he argues, for doing the right thing.

Does Bowen’s portrait accurately reflect the situation at Princeton? University officials declined to provide Princeton-specific data to match Bowen’s, but the statistics they did share — that 7 percent of this year’s freshmen are first-generation college students, for instance — suggest that Princeton fits in Bowen’s picture.

Princeton administrators want to do more to bring low-income students to the University, but they diplomatically suggest that Bowen is oversimplifying why these students are underrepresented and the challenges involved in trying to increase their numbers.

The financial aid changes already have made a big difference in recruitment by greatly minimizing cost as a barrier for needy students, say Tilghman and Janet Rapelye, who is in her second year as dean of admission. Since 1998, when the University first replaced loans with grants for students with family income below the national median (a program broadened to include all students on financial aid in 2001), the proportion of students on financial aid at Princeton has risen from 38 to 52 percent. The proportion of students the university defines as “low-income” — those whose family income falls below the median, which is now $50,000 — has nearly doubled, to 14 percent in the Class of 2008.

Now Tilghman and Rapelye are working to find out what prospective students think about Princeton, and to expand and enhance where and how the University identifies potential applicants. With the help of a consulting firm, Rapelye has undertaken a significant survey of high school students, parents, and counselors, to find out “what the outside perceptions of Princeton really are,” she says. (Rapelye says the firm, Widmeyer Communications, based in Washington, D.C., and New York, was selected because of its record of research and because it specializes in current issues in higher education.)

The survey will cover subjects as varied as whether students know about the University’s financial aid program and whether the eating clubs or other aspects of life at Princeton draw prospective students or turn them away. “If there are positive and strong images, we need to build on those,” Rapelye says. “If there are negative stereotypes, we need to address them.” And, she adds, if there are myths that hurt recruitment — such as the belief that Princeton is a school only for rich kids, “we need to debunk those.”

Tilghman also wants Rapelye and her admission team to hit the road (the president virtually boasts that the admission office overshot its travel budget by 300 percent this year, “and I didn’t complain a bit”). In the past, Tilghman says, “it is safe to say that we were — to put it kindly — more restrained [than peer institutions] in the ways in which we felt it was important to reach out to students.” That included minor things like the University not sending recruitment letters out to prospective students until their senior year, and major ones like heavy dependence on a predictable group of feeder schools (found, consistently, in upper-middle-class areas) and a network of mostly well-to-do alumni to deliver most of the University’s applicants. Administrators say that they want to maintain those networks while finding others.

By sending recruiters on the road into “schools we have never visited before,” and taking advantage of financial aid policies as generous as any in the nation, Tilghman believes that Princeton can meaningfully expand its pool of applicants from low-income backgrounds and continue to address the issue Bowen raises. But she has little interest in adopting his proposed strategy of putting a “thumb on the scale” for low-income applicants. “I don’t call what we do a tip on the scale, because it’s more holistic than that,” says Tilghman. But admission officers already keep in mind “what the student who grew up as the son of a Dominican Republic immigrant in the Bronx has achieved in his context compared to the student from Choate,” she says.

Rapelye says the edge for low-income students necessarily is limited because “we see the inequities” in the strength of their admission files and academic records compared to students from strong suburban schools. “They are so far apart in how they’re prepared,” she says. That underpreparation can come back to haunt the students once they’re on campus, Rapelye says. “Our final consideration is this: Is this student really ready to handle our curriculum? I’m absolutely not going to take someone if I think they won’t make it.”

Bowen applauds Princeton’s desire to focus on expanding the pool, but suspects that alone won’t do the trick. “It’s exceedingly hard overall to change the pools, because the pools are driven so much by factors and considerations that begin when children are born,” he says. “And I think that the recruitment efforts by these schools together have been so powerful and so persistent that it would be surprising if there is a large set of folks that were not on anybody’s screen.”

He encourages universities to try a multifaceted approach. “I have a left arm and a right arm. With the left arm, I can try to expand the pool; with the right arm, I can give a little more of a boost, a little more helping hand, to the very well-deserving kid from the low SES background who has a 1400 board score and still has only a 50 percent chance of getting admitted,” Bowen says.

Vinnakota, the University trustee, sees in many of the recent graduates of his school — now in their first year of college — the kind of students that both Bowen and Tilghman say they want at elite institutions. It’s true that some have a tough time with the social and academic transition to these colleges, but Vinnakota is watching them rise to the challenge. That “makes me applaud my students’ efforts even more,” Vinnakota says. “That’s why this is such an important issue to me, and should be, I believe, to Princeton.” end of article

Doug Lederman ’84 is editor of Inside Higher Ed (www.insidehighered.com), a publication about higher education.



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