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Predictably, as applications shot up, acceptance rates plummeted. Several selective colleges dropped their rates, already in the single digits, even lower, leading to a clarion call by higher-education observers for those institutions to expand their enrollments, particularly to students from low-income families. David L. Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, called for that in a recent New York Times op-ed, “Why Stanford Should Clone Itself.” And Jeffrey J. Selingo, a former Chronicle editor, echoed a similar plea in The Washington Post. Both essays cite a 2017 study showing that the most selective colleges in the United States enroll more students from the top 1 percent of incomes than from the bottom 60 percent — a sobering statistic.
In the weekly newsletter from Open Campus, Scott Smallwood noted recently that undergraduate enrollments have grown 62 percent since 1980. Public colleges nearly kept pace, with a 55-percent increase, yet private colleges grew by only 18 percent. He also pointed out that Princeton, Stanford, Duke, and Dartmouth had added just 2,400 spots in all since 1980, a growth rate of a mere 12 percent.
The premise here is that if only those colleges would increase their size — or, as Kirp suggested, open branch campuses in other American cities, as some of them have done abroad — then more students from the bottom 60 percent could be enrolled, thereby helping solve higher education’s equity and access problems. It is a noble goal, but a flawed way to go about achieving it. Opening up additional spots at selective colleges might benefit some students individually, but it would do almost nothing to topple the real barrier to equity in this country: Not enough low-income students enroll in college in the first place.
The real barrier to equity is that not enough low-income students enroll in college in the first place.
To begin with, there’s little reason to think that colleges that expanded their numbers would admit a different kind of student than they do now. Most likely they would do what they have always done, but on a larger scale, meaning that rich, white students would benefit most from such an expansion. But even if colleges did enroll more lower-income students, then that simply means that those students would now attend Dartmouth instead of Dickinson, or Duke instead of Bucknell. Such a shift would do little to improve social mobility in this country. The more highly ranked institutions would just grab students from lower-ranked institutions, and so on down the selectivity ladder, without expanding access at all. The students who were always going to college would now be going to a more-prestigious college. Those who never were going to college still wouldn’t.
That’s why all of higher education needs to focus its energy less on where existing collegebound students enroll and more on closing the college-going gaps we see across racial and economic lines. Currently the burden of that responsibility has been placed on the underresourced institutions at the bottom of the pecking order. That isn’t a useful solution to a problem that demographic trends have made only more urgent.
The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education projects a 160-percent jump in the number of Hispanic high-school graduates from 2005 to 2025. The National Center for Education Statistics shows a six-percentage-point gap between the college-attendance rates of Hispanic and white students (36 percent vs. 42 percent) and a 23-point gap between Hispanic and Asian students (59 percent). At the same time, according to the Economic Policy Institute, Hispanic family income is just 74 percent of white family income and only 57 percent of Asian family income.
The number of Black high-school graduates is projected to grow at a slower rate, 26.5 percent, from 2006 to 2026. Their college-enrollment rate in 2018 was only one point higher than the rate for Hispanic students, at 37 percent, and the average Black family income is only 60.5 percent of white family income and 47 percent of Asian family income. The growth of Hispanic, Black, and low-income high-school graduates, coupled with their lower college-attendance rates, suggests that if the status quo is maintained, more young people will miss out on the opportunity to attend college — even with expanded access to the most selective colleges.
Not surprisingly, finances are an enormous barrier to college enrollment. Tuition at private colleges has grown 105 percent over the last 30 years, adjusted for inflation, while tuition at public four-year colleges has risen 128 percent over the same period. A study from 2013 revealed that 40 percent of students and their parents excluded a college from consideration based on its sticker price alone, and that 60 percent were unaware that colleges actually provided financial assistance. It is imperative that institutions, including the most prestigious, commit to providing more aid to enable lower-income students to attend, and to promoting that aid aggressively. Similarly, colleges should team up with state and federal agencies not only to increase financing and academic-support services for needy students but also to raise awareness in lower-income neighborhoods that such assistance is available.
We certainly shouldn’t stop selective colleges from expanding their enrollments, but we should stop thinking that it will do much to improve equity and access. Until colleges do a better job of recruiting from poorer neighborhoods, expanding financial aid, and educating would-be first-generation students about the true cost of college, progress will be frustratingly slow. Higher education could make priorities of numerous goals, but pushing existing collegebound students up the selectivity ladder shouldn’t be one of them.