President Roth deserves much acclaim for his recently announced initiative to replace loans with grants for Wesleyan’s neediest students. It’s good to have a president who acknowledges that money makes the world go round—that without financial access, none of us would have the opportunity to be here.
Roth does Wesleyan University and its future students a great service by offering a more generous aid package to undergraduates with annual family incomes of $40,000 or less. Yet giving money to low-income students only goes so far in closing the opportunity gap in our nation’s education system.
These grants-not-loans will go to students who have already been granted access to a fine college education, who have commendably jumped through the hurdles, ring toss and crapshoot that get students into the country’s best schools. We as a university and community must acknowledge that the gap in college participation is due not only to financial barriers. There are many other barriers that impede admission, and even applying, to elite institutions like ours.
Three-fourths of students at the country’s top 146 colleges come from the highest-earning quartile of families, while just 10 percent come from the lowest-earning half and only three percent come from the bottom quartile.
Though top schools in this country have (finally) made diversity a stated priority, and though financial aid and need-blind admissions are admirable, an ugly fact remains true: the more selective a college in this country is, the fewer low-income students the school has.
At schools like this, even where there is great diversity among states, countries, ethnicities, and races, economic diversity is not a reality.
For proof, look at the U.S. News & World Reports distribution charts of the federal Pell Grant, which is most frequently given to undergraduates with family incomes under $30,000. Fifty percent of students at New York Polytechnic receive Pell Grants, while at Harvard and Yale only ten percent do.
Among top-25 ranked universities, the recipient percentage at Columbia is the highest of any private school in the nation, indicating a greater level of economic diversity. Yet just 15 percent of Columbia students are Pell Grant recipients.
At Wesleyan, only 13 percent of undergraduates receive the Pell Grant.
For all our talk about diversity, we have very little of it, when it comes to class. Yet our admissions system is not wholly to blame; at fault instead is the way we understand merit. Wesleyan’s credo well comprehends that a truly meritocratic institution must be diverse, or else it implies that certain groups in society have less merit than other groups. In practice, however, our conception of merit links it inextricably with privilege.
Think about the things that make a college applicant stand out, and then go a step further to realize what it takes to get them: the financial wherewithal to have spent a summer learning Chinese, the employment-free time to have made a service trip to Panama, a literate English-speaking parent with her own time to polish up a college essay.
The best high schools in California offer many A.P. and honors classes, and student enrollment in these advanced classes automatically adds extra points onto the student’s G.P.A. The lack of A.P. and honors classes at largely black schools around Los Angeles further handicaps low-income students. In a system like this, for a poor African-American kid, even a 4.0 can be beat.
American liberal arts colleges are committed to a belief in meritocracy. Schools seek to be bastions of opportunity for the best and brightest, the proven ’intellectually curious,’ in Wesleyan’s own parlance. But our notion of ’merit,’ in its current form, is too often skewed in favor of the wealthy and the white.
A study conducted by William Bowen, the former president of Princeton, and two associates examined the admissions records of 19 elite colleges. Their figures showed, unsurprisingly, that recruited athletes and legacy students have a higher chance of acceptance than just any kid off the street. Yet when Bowen looked towards low-income students—a group to whom college admissions officers say they pay special attention— he saw that, in practice, these students received no edge, no bonus points, in the admissions process. A disadvantaged background—whether defined by parental education level or family income—makes no difference in a student’s shot at being admitted.
No matter how much adversity he or she has faced, then, a poor white kid from upstate New York gets the same treatment in the admissions process as a rich white kid from Westchester County or Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
The income difference greatly affects whether students apply to college. If and once they have made it there, a low-income student with high-test scores still has a smaller chance of finishing college (29 percent) than a high-income student with low test scores (30 percent). And among low-income and high-income students who achieve equally high test scores, high income students have a 45 percent higher chance of graduating from college.
While Roth’s new policy is a major step for the financially needy, it will not make Wesleyan the beacon of opportunity I believe it can be.
Racial diversity should be maintained and increased at our school, despite the foolhardy decision of the Supreme Court stating that public schools must stop taking race into consideration. Race must be a factor because it has a tremendous effect on applicants’ lives. Similarly, socio-economic status has serious effects.
For Wesleyan to achieve truly fair diversity, the school needs stronger policies of affirmative action based on class.
One of the best liberal arts schools in the country should reflect the best of the country: the brightest, most hardworking, most able, persevering and probing of young people—irrespective of family income.