Race-based affirmative action will remain a part of the admissions process into the foreseeable future. Racism continues as a part of everyday American life, and until the United States reaches a point where college profiles reflect demographics, diversity-increasing policies should endure. Even with these policies, Blacks and Hispanics are not better represented than they were 35 years ago. With this in mind, admissions officers need to address another source of inequality on college campuses. Income inequality, which often pairs with race, presents a further challenge in the effort to diversify institutions of higher learning.
The statistics show a grim picture. In 38 colleges and universities in America, more students originated from the top one percent (income of more than 630 thousand dollars) than the bottom 60 percent (less than 60 thousand dollars). Included in this list are five Ivy League Schools and seven NESCAC schools. The most egregious statistic on the site is Washington University at St. Louis, where students from the top one percent are over triple the number of those from the bottom sixty percent. Colleges often find nifty ways to hide the elitism fostered by their admissions policies. Go on the web page of any elite college and check out the class profile for the most recent year. The page will probably boast of students from nearly every corner of the earth. It will probably provide cute statistics displaying its commitment to economic diversity, showing the thousands in aid it awards to the average student. However, nowhere on the the page can one find the average salary of a parent or student. The reason for this? The actual statistics are an embarrassment to the university, leading to a New York Times exposé portraying a more accurate picture.
Low-income students face a number of deficits that don’t worry the high-income student. The first advantage high-income students receive is schooling. Wesleyan serves as an example to the priority schooling wealthy students receive. Our admissions office creates a class filled with roughly half private school students and half public school students. To someone from a family with an average income, private high school is out of reach. To the 90 percent of Americans who send their kids to public schools, the idea that one in two kids at Wesleyan come from private schools represents a disproportionate spread. The reason for this is obvious: private schools provide resources public schools cannot. I went to a well-funded, relatively well-ranked public high school. We had one college counselor for a grade of about 270 kids. I met with a counselor twice, thirty minutes for each session. Compare this to the experience of my friend, who attends the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy. His counselor meets with him multiple times a month, provides extensive advice on schools, and calls admissions offices to advocate on his behalf.
Wealthy students attending public school can still reap the rewards of their income throughout the admissions process. A friend who attended my same public high school hired a college advisor to help navigate the process. The bill for this service reached over $5,000. While this seems excessive, a package deal from these advisors runs as high as $10,000, with hourly rates for small-time consulting around $150. My own experience of relative economic discomfort forced me to do the heavy lifting on my own. I spent hours researching affordable schools, practicing free online ACT tests, and refining my essay while many of my peers were bolstering their own applications. Despite the clear advantage of wealthier students in the process, my own application was viewed in the same light as those from significantly greater privilege.
The institutional issues disadvantaging low-income students do not end there. Early Decision (ED) presents the most obvious example of maintaining the economic status quo. ED allows students to apply in early November and hear back on their acceptance as early as December. If accepted, the applicant is legally bound to attend the school. Well-advised students at top prep schools receive vital information on the process of early decision and how rates of acceptance are much higher in this process than through the conventional regular decision. They can also afford to travel to schools to see if they want to commit so early in the process. Economically struggling students do not have this luxury. I recall telling people at my high school in December about my acceptance through the ED process, only for them to ask me where else I was applying to. Poorly advised, lower-income students are either unaware or do not have the means to navigate early decision. Critics of these applicants claim a simple Google search can provide the answer to many of the questions raised above. However, for a student whose parents are struggling financially, they might not have the time or resources to discover some of the options available to them.
The fix for the gross income discrepancy on college campuses is affirmative action for low-income groups. While this proposal may seem extreme, we already have what amounts to affirmative action for wealthy students in the form of legacy admissions. A study from Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade found that being a legacy applicant at an elite university provided an admissions boost comparable to scoring 160 points higher on the SAT (out of 1600). Harvard, which some view as the pinnacle of U.S. higher education, filled 29 percent of the class of 2021 with legacy students. The acceptance rate for legacy kids is more than four times the regular admissions rate. The only way to increase the number of economically disadvantaged students is to force institutions to do it, as, left to their own devices, institutions have shown little interest in changing deep set elitist practices and increasing recruitment of less well-off students.
Some detractors claim that there are not enough high-achieving poor students to fill ranks at elite institutions. These are baseless claims, as studies show there is a large supply of capable low-income students who are not applying to elite schools. One reason for this gap is the shock of sticker price. A high achieving, low-income student decides they want to apply to an elite institution. However, the $50,000+ sticker price turns them off from the process. No one tells them that many of these top schools offer near full rides to low-income students. In my case, the local state school of the University of New Hampshire would have cost me about $10,000 more a year than Wesleyan currently costs me. Another argument made against low-income affirmative action is that the students will not be prepared for an elite education. Data again rebukes this idea, as economically disadvantaged students perform nearly as well as their counterparts. Bringing in a more economically diverse environment benefits classroom discussion as well. On multiple occasions, my classmates failed to relate to the experience of living with economic constraints. We have students at Wesleyan who can speak from their experience based on race, gender, and sex. We have students at Wesleyan who can speak on their experiences in Macedonia, Rwanda, Myanmar, Thailand, and Uganda. Is it really that hard for admissions to find students whose parents fall below Wesleyan’s average income level of $192,000? There is nothing better to continue the pattern of income inequality in the United States than to have a bunch of wealthy college students discuss the issue in a classroom with the absence of someone living through it.
Detractors accuse this argument of two things. The first is that I am advocating for the poor white man. This is inaccurate, as 86 percent of African-American students on college campuses are middle class or upper class, and white students are even richer. Take the extreme instance of Barack Obama’s daughters. In 2007, he attempted to explain the flaw in admissions in the interaction between economic status and race.
“Well, first of all, I think that my daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged, and I think that there’s nothing wrong with us taking that into account as we consider admissions policies at universities,” he says. “I think that we should take into account white kids who have been disadvantaged and have grown up in poverty and shown themselves to have what it takes to succeed. So I don’t think those concepts are mutually exclusive. I think what we can say is that in our society, race and class still intersect, that there are a lot of African-American kids who are still struggling, that even those who are in the middle class may be first generation as opposed to fifth or sixth-generation college attendees, and that we all have an interest in bringing as many people together to help build this country.”
Universities need to give a leg up to low-income students to overcome the countless challenges they face in the admissions process. While a college degree is not a necessity for socioeconomic mobility, it is one of the best ways to climb the ladder.
Jack Leger is a member of the class of 2021 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.