I just finished reading Laura Hamilton’s article More is More or More is Less: Parental Financial Investments During College (published behind academic firewalls in American Sociological Review, Vol, 78, 2012).

Introducing her study, she writes:

Because parental aid increases access to college, students with parental assistance will likely display a wider range of ability and motivation. In contrast, students who make it to college with little to no parental help may not only be exceptionally talented but also uniquely motivated — for which there is no good empirical proxy.

She found, indeed, that students receiving more money from their parents while in college are more likely finish their degree but also more likely to have lower GPAs than other students.

I think that this is such a smart study because:

  1. It questions the long-standing assumption that generous parenting is inherently good for students.
  2. It concedes that upper-middle class ways of being are not the model for all other students.  Working, for example, may actually contribute to students’ investment in higher ed.
  3. It puts all  the fuss about things like SAT exams into context.  The SAT is a low predictor of eventual success in college for many populations, yet many colleges continue to require entrance exams.  If the amount of financial support that students get will get from parents does predict eventual GPA, might admissions preferences not then be given to those students who will *not* be supported as generously by parents, if the goal of admissions is to admit those most likely to succeed?

Researchers invest a great deal of time studying those on the margins of formal schooling.    It is good to also see studies looking more closely at those considered to be the norm.




October 24, 2013

There are so many disturbing things in this piece in today’s Inside Higher Education about data systems that allow college recruiters to “micro target” students.

First is the  focus on recruiting students who don’t need financial aid:

“Everybody wants to go to the magic island of full-pay students, but it’s rapidly shrinking real estate,” said Bill Berg, an enrollment management consultant at Scannell & Kurz.

Some consulting firms are promising to help colleges try to get paying students, or students who have other means that don’t require colleges to discount their tuition prices. RightStudent gathers and sells data on students to help colleges find specific types of students, including students with families wealthy enough to pay for college and students who can receive outside scholarships for other characteristics, including specific learning disabilities.

Then there are the insinuations that colleges may use zip code as proxies for income and race in deciding who will or won’t be recruited, and the resistance to establishing policies for policing such practices.
Then there is the news that 4 year colleges may spend up to $2500 to recruit each enrollee, when I’m clear that no one is spending anything close to that to recruit students from places like my high school.

And finally there is the implication that colleges may also use these data sets to actively recruit applicants that they know will never be admitted, all so that they can boast of their selectivity.

Families of poor and working kids already face so many challenges when navigating the path to college, and now they have to be savvy about why they are or are not getting recruiting contacts from colleges.  I’m imagining the confused pride around being recruited by a college that seems beyond one’s reach, but beginning to imagine what it might be like to be someone who does belong in such a place, only to get a letter months later denying  my application, with little or no explanation, all so that that college can boost its selectivity rankings.

All this, when we continue to spout rhetoric about higher ed being about the shining  path to opportunity and mobility.

Reproducing Privilege

August 2, 2013

While more African American and Hispanic young people are attending college, their enrollment takes them on very different paths from more privileged white peers, according to this new report from researchers at Georgetown.


Center on Education and the Workforce --1












When I started thinking about college as a working class white girl in a small town, I was on my own.

My parents were proud, my high school guidance counselors smiled and wrote me the required recommendation letters, but I was completely on my own in deciding where to apply.   It really wasn’t until graduate school that I began to realize the vast differences in different colleges and universities.   At 16, I knew only that it was a good thing to aspire to “college”.

Earlier reports have shown that high achieving, low-income kids have little access to information about whether they might be competitive for admissions to more elite colleges or whether they could afford to go there.  At the same time, for-profict colleges that are now attracting so many kids of color and low-income kids have huge budgets for recruiting and advertising.

In this information age, when young people now carry digital connections to the world in their pockets, the ball would seem to be in the court of colleges and universities to disseminate the most basic information to young people about where they might thrive, and where they’d be welcomed.

If, in fact, they would be welcomed.


There have been many tweets and Facebook postings about Sunday’s  NYT article on low-income students and the obstacles they face getting to college.  The detailed reporting on the three high-achieving girls, their mentor, and the multiple things that got in their way has generated over 1200 comments to date, many of them surprisingly empathetic.

Some thoughts, after thinking about this piece for a few days:

1.  The article ran on the front page of my edition of the times, and while I’m grateful for the conversation,  I am dismayed that the deep connection between social class and college access is still front page news.

2.  In any article like this, the obtuse financial aid form — the FAFSA — is critiqued, yet promised revisions that don’t “require a Ph.D.” are nowhere on the horizon.

3. While the personalization of the bigger story is compelling, the much bigger picture of deep institutional classism can too easily get lost in talk about bad boyfriends, an indifferent college administrator, and complex families.  Middle class students may experience any of those things and yet still thrive in college and beyond.

Thoughts about the ways that these young women were portrayed in the article?


Ritual Meritocracy

January 8, 2008

In today’s on-line/January 11′s print issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Mitchell Stevens writes in an op-ed piece on the “admissions race that’s already won”, calling the annual admissions frenzy at selective colleges “essentially ceremonial — an elaborate national ritual of just desserts.” He writes:

The fact that the fates of particular applicants at particular colleges remain uncertain until the end enables us to believe that the winners earn their victories in a fair game. That is how the anxiety that attends the application season is deceptive: It encourages those who experience it to believe that the outcomes of the process are considerably more uncertain than they actually are.

More perniciously perhaps, the feverishness of each year’s application season allows us to take comfort in modest reforms that mostly only tinker with that process. Some recent fixes at selective institutions — eliminating early decision, making the SAT an optional component of applications, or, a bit more radically, proposals to replace individualized selection with a lottery system for all those applicants who meet some general criteria — will do nothing to change the distribution of opportunity that delivers talented applicants to admissions officers in a markedly class-stratified way.

It would be far better if we turned our reformist energies toward improving educational opportunity earlier in life.

I think about this in the context of Harvard’s recent decision to tap its considerable endowment to provide more financial aid for “middle income”families earning less than $180,000 a year. But to the extent that such announcements do increase the number of applicants at Harvard, admissions will become even more competitive, and students from more “modest” backgrounds will be welcomed at Harvard only to the extent that they look like the children of the wealthy donors who make their presence possible.

Stevens argues that genuine equity in college admissions will be attained when we have high quality preschool for all children, generous funding for college prep resources in low-income school districts, and a public that thinks of the needs of children other than their own. Similary, Peter Sacks cautions that colleges like Harvard are motivated mainly by their rankings in the admissions race for a relatively small pool of hyper-qualified applicants and in the end, have little incentive to substantively increase needs-based financial aid.

As long as so many students attend schools that are so ill-equipped to prepare them for college, Harvard and its peers can have it both ways in the “elaborate national ritual” of admissions: getting credit for seeming to do its part in equalizing opportunity while still serving very few students of modest means.

And to the extent that the parents who usher their children through the frenzied process of admissions do think of other people’s children, they can convince themselves that these other children must certainly have had it easier.

And the pernicious ritual continues.

Thanks to the Eduwonkette for her tip to the Chronicle piece.


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