Foundation Urges Admissions Offices to Create a ‘Poverty Preference’

January 11, 2016

To increase the socioeconomic diversity of their campuses, selective colleges should create a "poverty preference" for high-achieving low-income applicants, a new report says.

The report, released on Monday by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, urges institutions to make the admissions process more equitable. The authors describe the current system as "a classic case of interest-group politics gone awry," in which poor students lack champions and face long odds of being admitted. According to this pointed critique, today’s admissions outcomes boil down to a series of "preferences" — for athletes, legacies, wealthy students, and so on — that stack the deck against the underprivileged.

Jennifer Giancola, the foundation’s director of research, wrote the report with Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and proponent of so-called class-based affirmative action. By creating a preference for promising low-income applicants, they argue, colleges could better recognize the accomplishments of high-achieving students who have displayed persistence in overcoming obstacles.

A report says colleges should better recognize the accomplishments of high-achieving students who have displayed persistence in overcoming obstacles.
They also describe the need for a "viable alternative strategy to promote racial diversity on campus," especially if the U.S. Supreme Court were to bar or limit race-conscious admissions programs. Mr. Kahlenberg has argued that the latter don’t do enough to enhance socioeconomic diversity at selective colleges.

The report cites examples of existing race-neutral policies that can help low-income students. Those include giving weight to socioeconomic factors during admissions evaluations, "holistic" reviews that assess applicants’ achievements in the context of their family and educational backgrounds, and percentage plans through which top students from each high school earn spots at state flagships.

As higher education waits for the Supreme Court’s ruling in the latest affirmative-action case, the report provides a detailed snapshot of the underrepresentation of low-income students at big-name colleges.

It also reprises some prevalent critiques of how the admissions process disproportionately benefits wealthy students. For instance, the authors take aim at colleges’ reliance on ACT and SAT scores: "The increasing reliance [on] standardized-test scores in compiling an Academic Index to screen applications — so as not to overwhelm admissions officers with otherwise having to read thousands of applications — may unfairly eliminate disproportionate numbers of low-income students on the basis of small score differences."

As the title suggests — "True Merit: Ensuring Our Brightest Students Have Access to Our Best Colleges and Universities" — the report is concerned with a relatively small segment of postsecondary institutions that deny great hordes of applicants. Some readers surely will question the definition of "best" colleges here, just as they might bristle at the prevalent use of the word "preferences." And admissions officials, especially those already employing various strategies for enrolling and supporting low-income students, might find this rendering of their work unfair.

Still, the report offers an important reminder: Who ends up attending the nation’s most selective colleges is no accident. The number of poor students on a given campus reflects, at least in part, institutional goals and priorities — and choices made to achieve them.

Eric Hoover writes about admissions trends, enrollment-management challenges, and the meaning of Animal House, among other issues. He’s on Twitter @erichoov, and his email address is

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