‘Rewarding Strivers’

On Thursday, at a National Press Club luncheon in Washington D.C., the Century Foundation released a new book that I edited entitled Rewarding Strivers: Helping Low-Income Students Succeed in College. The discussion, which featured chapter authors Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University and former New York Times education editor Edward B. Fiske—along with William  Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions at Harvard College—raised a number of key issues in the fight for expanding access to low-income students.  Related controversies were raised by media reports about the book in places like USA Today, Inside Higher Education, and National Review.

Rewarding Strivers is a follow on to the Century Foundation’s 2004 volume, America’s Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education, which included a chapter by Carnevale and Stephen J. Rose finding that at selective institutions, 74% of students come for the richest socioeconomic quarter of the population, and just 3% from the bottom quartile.  Rewarding Strivers includes a chapter by Fiske on the University of North Carolina’s innovative financial aid and support program and a chapter by Carnevale and coauthor Jeff Strohl on efforts colleges could use to admit disadvantaged students who beat the odds.  Among the questions raised in yesterday’s discussion and media reports about the volume were the following: 

1. Is giving a leg up in admissions to economically disadvantaged students too controversial?  In Mary Beth Marklein’s article about the book in USA Today, the admissions director at UNC-Chapel Hill, Steven Farmer, suggested that economic preferences are likely to be just as controversial as racial preferences.  “Somebody who believes his or her child is entitled to a space (in a school’s freshman class) doesn’t care whether that child’s space is taken by a student of color or by a student from the other side of the tracks.”  But in fact, polling has long found that while American’s oppose considering race in admissions by 2:1, they favor providing a preference for low-income applicants by a 2:1 margin. On the panel, Fitzsimmons, who identified himself as a striver, described Harvard’s efforts as combining an emphasis on financial aid with special consideration of socioeconomic obstacles in admissions.

2. Is the fight over affirmative action based on class or race misplaced, given that students can get an excellent education anywhere?  In National Review, George Leef argued: “Elite colleges don’t necessarily provide elite education.  For the vast majority of students, the course work at middling schools is indistinguishable from that at prestige schools.”   In fact, Carnevale and Strohl find that where you go to school matters on a number of fronts.  Colleges with low selectivity spend about $12,000 per student compared with $92,000 per student at the most selective institutions.  Moreover, in the wealthiest 10 percent of institutions, students pay just 20 cents for every dollar spent on them, compared with the poorest 10 percent of institutions, where students pay 78 cents of every dollar spent on them.  Selective institutions are much more likely to graduate equally qualified students than less selective colleges and universities.  Earnings are 45% higher for students who graduated from more selective institutions, particularly low-income students.  And according to research by Thomas Dye, 54 percent of America’s corporate leaders and 42 percent of government leaders are graduates of just 12 institutions.

3. Is it preferable to help move low-income students into better schools or to improve colleges that disadvantaged students already attend? The Inside Higher Education report contrasted these two strategies: affirmative action to help move economically disadvantaged students into wealthier and more selective colleges; and efforts to move “money and quality programs to the community colleges” which most low-income students attend.  At the K-12 level, more money in economically and racially segregated schools has helped some, but ultimately efforts to make separate but equal work have proven unsatisfactory.  What reason is there to think the approach will work any better in higher education?

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