Marketing College to the Needy

From today’s Inside Higher Ed newsletter comes this article on the College Board’s new policies that will allow college admissions officers to identify potential applicants from low-income neighborhoods:

[C]olleges in the pilot program will be able to identify probable low-income students by purchasing names of those who live in certain low-income zip codes or attend certain low-income high schools. This may sound innocuous — after all, colleges routinely plan visits to certain high schools in impoverished areas as part of efforts to recruit disadvantaged students. But the pilot represents a significant shift for the College Board, which moved away from selling zip code-based names 20 years ago when some colleges were using the information to try to attract wealthier students.

The experiment — which features strict rules designed to make sure colleges use the purchases only to increase socioeconomic diversity, not to limit it — come at the request of colleges that wanted new ways to reach low-income students. Many educators believe that the key reason the poorest students have low enrollment rates in higher education is not a lack of availability of financial aid, but lack of information about aid that exists. The only way to combat this problem, they argue, is direct communication with prospective students and their families, with information focused on their economic situation.

In an ideal world, getting information about financial aid to those who need it would be routine, and would begin long before a young person had taken the SAT, but it should be interesting to follow this pilot

Ritual Meritocracy

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.

Blue Collar Scholars

In today’s Inside Higher Ed, Shari Dinkins offers advice for faculty who teach blue collar students, from flexible deadlines to choices of texts, to seeking ways to experience the real demands of physical labor.

One the one hand, I’m grateful that more people seem to be writing about such things.

On the other hand, I wonder why we still do have to write about such things. Shouldn’t highly educated faculty know that there are things about their first-generation students that they can’t possibly know, and be at least curious enough to ask?

Working Class Academics

Last week, The Chronicle published a poignant essay by Thomas Benton, a working-class academic who feels, at times, like a “class traitor” in his work at an expensive private college.

The article spurred excellent discussion among Dave, a sociologist; Wes a musician who wrote here and here; and Nathan, another musician, all of whom reflect on their own working class roots and their current work.

The life stories told in the posts and in comments that follow each are well worth a careful read.

Class Based Affirmative Action

From the Huffington Post, this essay by Matthew Schweiger on class-based affirmative action, with examples of programs from UNC Chapel Hill, Amherst, and Harvard.

In Schweiger’s words,

In essence each of these institutions has America’s uncertain future at mind and, ultimately, an equally valuable vision of how to create a stronger democracy as we continue to proceed into the 21st century.

Refreshingly, there’s not yet a barrage of comments about admitting “the underqualifieed” and the inevitable decline of the academy if we started admitting people who could not afford select lacrosse teams or eco-service trips to Costa Rica. But stay tuned…