Why Few Poor Kids at Top Colleges Matters

Higher education has long been touted as a way out of poverty, but that only works if poor students enroll in quality universities. Right now, it’s not happening, and income inequality is rising.

CAMBRIDGE, MA - FEBRUARY 21: Harvard University walk through the campus on the day Harvard University president, Lawrence H. Summers announced he is resigning at the end of the academic year February 21, 2006 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Summers will step down from his post after a turbulent five-years at the Ivy League school. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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Emily Deruy, Fusion
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Emily DeRuy, Fusion
Dec. 4, 2013, 4:54 a.m.

There’s a ser­i­ous lack of so­cioeco­nom­ic di­versity (read: there are very few poor people) at the na­tion’s best uni­versit­ies.

Ac­cord­ing to a new study from John Jerrim at the In­sti­tute of Edu­ca­tion at the Uni­versity of Lon­don, stu­dents at elite Amer­ic­an uni­versit­ies are far more likely to come from a pro­fes­sion­al or “white col­lar” back­ground than to come from a work­ing-class or “blue col­lar” back­ground.

Here’s why the lack of di­versity is a red flag:

High­er edu­ca­tion has long been touted as a way up and out of poverty, but that only works if the poor kids can get (and keep) ac­cess to qual­ity uni­versit­ies. Right now, it’s not hap­pen­ing and in­come in­equal­ity is rising. One reas­on so few low-in­come kids gain ac­cess is be­cause of an aca­dem­ic achieve­ment gap. Poor kids are less likely to test well, take ad­vanced classes and earn top grades. Ac­cord­ing to the re­port, more than 20 per­cent of wealthy U.S. kids were con­sidered high-achiev­ing us­ing in­ter­na­tion­al test res­ults from 2009 as an in­dic­at­or. Few­er than five per­cent of poor kids ranked as high-achiev­ing.

The reas­on is not that low-in­come kids are not as smart. That’s not true. But even as ba­bies, stud­ies show low-in­come kids are ex­posed to few­er words than wealthy kids. They also have par­ents who tend to have less flex­ible work sched­ules. Poor kids are also hit with the fact that not all pub­lic schools are cre­ated equal when they reach school age. Pub­lic schools get some of their fund­ing from prop­erty taxes and kids from wealthy neigh­bor­hoods of­ten at­tend bet­ter-fun­ded, su­per­i­or schools. They also have par­ents who tend to have more free­dom to vo­lun­teer and par­ti­cip­ate in the PTA.

It’s no won­der then, that by the time low-in­come kids be­gin to con­sider col­lege, they face ser­i­ous aca­dem­ic dis­ad­vant­ages.

There are glob­al im­plic­a­tions if the U.S. fails to do a bet­ter job of edu­cat­ing its in­creas­ingly di­verse, both eco­nom­ic­ally and ra­cially, stu­dents.

An in­ter­na­tion­al study re­leased today shows U.S. high school stu­dents lag­ging be­hind glob­al av­er­ages in math and per­form­ing at just av­er­age levels in read­ing and sci­ence. The U.S. doesn’t break the top 20 coun­tries in any of the cat­egor­ies. While the U.S. still has some of the best uni­versit­ies in the world, there are a grow­ing num­ber of stu­dents un­able to reach them. And as em­ploy­ers be­come more glob­al, they may in­creas­ingly turn to coun­tries like Singa­pore in Ja­pan, who pro­duce top stu­dents, in­stead.

The Jerrim re­port has some good news, though:

Jerrim found that while a lot of the so­cioeco­nom­ic gap in elite uni­versit­ies is ex­plained by gaps in aca­dem­ic achieve­ment, that’s not the only factor. At least a quarter of the dif­fer­ence is not ex­plained by aca­dem­ic abil­ity, which “sug­gests that (cost-ef­fect­ive) in­ter­ven­tions between the ages of 14 and 18 may play an im­port­ant role in re­du­cing so­cioeco­nom­ic in­equal­it­ies in elite uni­versity ac­cess in the fu­ture,” ac­cord­ing to the study.

In oth­er words, there are low-in­come kids who could suc­ceed at elite uni­versit­ies who do not en­roll in them and there are some steps edu­cat­ors and of­fi­cials could take to in­crease en­roll­ment.

The reas­ons are var­ied, but a lack of fin­ances is crit­ic­al. Tu­ition can be pro­hib­it­ively ex­pens­ive. Elite schools of­ten of­fer schol­ar­ships to low-in­come kids, but the schools have done a bad job of let­ting poor stu­dents know such as­sist­ance is avail­able.

Pro­fess­or Car­oline Hoxby from Stan­ford Uni­versity and oth­er re­search­ers found in a dif­fer­ent study that many simply don’t ap­ply to elite schools be­cause of something as seem­ingly minor as not hav­ing the ap­plic­a­tion fee. There are fee waivers but, again, many don’t know that.

Schools them­selves also do a bad job of identi­fy­ing high-achiev­ing but low-in­come kids to tar­get.

But there are ef­forts to do a bet­ter job of reach­ing low-in­come kids with the po­ten­tial to suc­ceed at top schools. Col­lege Board, the group that ad­min­is­ters the SAT and has ac­cess to in­form­a­tion about stu­dent per­form­ance and fin­an­cial means, has be­gun send­ing fee waivers and oth­er ap­plic­a­tion in­form­a­tion to tar­geted stu­dents to en­cour­age them to ap­ply.

Why does the lack of so­cioeco­nom­ic di­versity mat­ter?

In many cases, the dearth of low-in­come stu­dents also trans­lates to small num­bers of minor­ity stu­dents since they are more likely to be low-in­come. For ex­ample, of the 2,418 male fresh­men en­ter­ing the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia at Los Angeles, a top pub­lic school, in 2012, just 48 were Afric­an Amer­ic­an.

Ra­cial di­versity at col­lege is a good thing be­cause stud­ies have shown it can en­hance cre­ativ­ity and tol­er­ance. It also helps pre­pare stu­dents to enter an in­creas­ingly di­verse work­force, which brings us to the next point.

The over­all lack of di­versity at top schools could have ser­i­ous im­plic­a­tions far bey­ond lec­ture halls. Top com­pan­ies of­ten look to edu­ca­tion­al qual­i­fic­a­tions when mak­ing se­lec­tions and some are, for bet­ter or worse, Ivy League co­ter­ies. Wheth­er that’s a good thing or not, get­ting more so­cioeco­nom­ic di­versity in­to those top schools would likely even­tu­ally trans­late in­to great­er board­room di­versity.

The coun­try can’t hope to com­pete in an in­creas­ingly di­verse glob­al eco­nomy un­less it can el­ev­ate all of its stu­dents, not just the wealthy few with built in ad­vant­ages.

This art­icle is pub­lished with per­mis­sion from Fu­sion, a TV and di­git­al net­work that cham­pi­ons a smart, di­verse and in­clus­ive Amer­ica. Fu­sion is a part­ner of Na­tion­al Journ­al and The Next Amer­ica. Fol­low the au­thor on Twit­ter: @Emily_­DeR­uy

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