Aristocracy or Meritocracy? Just 3 Percent of Kids at Top Colleges Are Low-Income

The admissions process at prestigious universities tends to favor the well-off.

Graduating students at Harvard. (Photo: Lane Turner/Getty Images)

Jan 13, 2016· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Ask any political leader or education policy expert, and they’ll likely agree: A bachelor’s degree from a quality school increases the odds that a student from an impoverished family will reach the middle class. But a new report finds that the admissions process at the nation’s top colleges and universities is “rigged,” keeping poor kids out.

The report from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation also showed that, although higher-ed progressives are fighting to preserve race-based admissions for the sake of campus diversity, they continue to quietly usher affluent kids, star athletes, and children of alumni to the front of the admissions line.

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The best way to ensure a diverse mix of students, according to the report: Design admissions programs so they give preferential treatment to high-achieving students who have the academic potential, but not the money, to be accepted at a top school.

“We were concerned that high-performing, low-income kids were getting lost in the shuffle,” Harold Levy, executive director of the foundation, a scholarship organization that supports high-achieving low-income students, told TakePart. “They weren’t getting properly treated in the admissions process.”

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“This report for the first time analyzes the entire admissions process,” Levy says. When it comes to getting low-income students into college, he said, “the deck is stacked.”

It’s rare to hear the nation’s esteemed higher-education system described like a Ponzi scheme or a crooked Las Vegas casino, yet the numbers don’t lie. According to the report, at the nation’s most selective colleges—think top public schools like the University of Virginia, Ivy League colleges like Harvard University, or private ones like Wake Forest University—most of the students come from affluent families, while a relative handful of undergraduates come from impoverished backgrounds.

“The thing that triggered our interest was our discovery that only 3 percent of the students at top colleges come from the 25th percent of families with the lowest incomes,” said Levy. Meanwhile, he added, 72 percent of all college enrollees come from the top 25 percent of the nation’s highest-income earners.

“To translate: 3 percent come from poor or working class [families], and 72 percent come from the upper class,” he said.

Part of the problem stems from the process itself, which can be overwhelming and expensive, Levy said. Students in well-off households and districts have the resources to ease the process—including money for SAT prep courses, college application fees, and on-campus visits to colleges away from home.

Poor kids, on the other hand, may not even know how the college application process works, let alone have the money to pay for more than one college application—typically $100 per application, Levy said. Most struggling school districts run short of guidance counselors, and the ones who are around are typically undertrained or overworked. And for poor kids, visits to distant campuses are usually out of the question.

Highly selective colleges, meanwhile, aren’t going out of their way to recruit poor students or help them shoulder the cost of college, Levy said. While most schools prefer to admit kids who decide early, “kids in poverty can’t apply early, because they need to see the financial aid package first. They’re not going to see the financial aid package until after they’re admitted.”

Elizabeth Morgan, director of external relations for the National College Access Network, told TakePart that the roadblocks facing poor kids who want to go to college are “not surprising at all. I’ve worked in this field for a long time.” What the report overlooks, said Morgan, is the economic component for the colleges, many of which are private.

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“In the selective college world, as the demand for those [classroom] seats has increased, the supply has not increased. They’re admitting fewer low-income students,” she said, adding that those students often need hefty financial aid packages—usually from the colleges themselves—in order to pay tuition.

Statistics seem to confirm that point: In 2000, 16 percent of students in the most selective schools were Pell-eligible, compared with 17 percent in 2013, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.

“The reality is, from year to year, most selective admissions institutions admit the same percentage of poor students [because] that’s what their budget can afford,” Morgan said. “We can rearrange the deck chairs, but if schools are not committed to admitting more lower-income students, not much can be done.”