Top U.S. colleges and universities should institute an admissions preference for high-achieving low-income students, many of whom face inequitable barriers to admission, a report from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation argues.
According to the report, True Merit: Ensuring Our Brightest Students Have Access to Our Best Colleges and Universities (52 pages, PDF), 72 percent of students in America's most competitive institutions of higher education come from the wealthiest 25 percent of U.S. families, while only 3 percent come from families in the bottom income quartile. Moreover, even among equally high-achieving students, those from the top income quartile are twice as likely to apply to — and three times as likely to attend — a highly selective school than those from the bottom quartile, while the few low-income students who do attend such schools are just as likely to graduate as their high-income peers.
The report found that many high-achieving low-income students do not apply to top-tier colleges and universities because they think the tuition and fees are unaffordable or do not receive individualized guidance counseling, and those who do are at a disadvantage because college admissions systems tend to prioritize an applicant's grades in college prep-level and advanced courses, to which many low-income students have no access. Meanwhile, financial aid available to the lowest-income students has been reduced in recent years, while non-need-based "merit aid" has increased. A "poverty preference" for admissions to selective institutions of higher education, akin to existing preferences for athletes and the children of alumni, the report argues, would create a more level playing field for disadvantaged students. Indeed, the report concludes that preferential college admissions for qualified low-income students could ultimately result in as much or more racial and ethnic diversity at institutions of higher education than is being achieved currently by race-based affirmative action policies.
"Students are unaware of how to apply for scholarships they are eligible to receive," said Cooke Foundation executive director Harold O. Levy. "They can't afford SAT or ACT preparation course fees. They can't afford to visit colleges that they are considering attending. And they often need to hold after-school jobs that make it hard to participate in athletics and other extracurricular activities in high school. All this sharply reduces their chances of admission to the most selective colleges and universities, amounting to an unjust poverty penalty levied against outstanding students."