By Martin Kurzweil and Josh Wyner
The American Enterprise Institute recently released a report that claimed that America’s selective colleges have held steady in their enrollment of low-income students, while seeing a decline in middle-income students. Though it is not stated directly, the authors seem to be saying that colleges should shift their attention from low-income to middle-income students. Also implied is that as long as colleges continue to enroll the same share of low-income students, they’re doing enough. Maintaining the status quo, however, isn’t enough.
In fact, both low- and middle-income students are severely underrepresented at selective institutions. The report presents a false trade-off that diverts attention from the real issue: Students in the top income bracket are extraordinarily overrepresented at our nation’s most selective colleges and universities.
In a massive study last year relying on data from federal tax returns, Stanford University professor Raj Chetty and his colleagues found that a majority of students at many selective colleges were from the top fifth of the income distribution. In fact, at 38 highly selective U.S. colleges and universities, more students came from families with earnings in the top 1 percent of the income distribution than from those in the bottom 60 percent. Delisle and Cooper’s analysis of more recent data confirms that this overrepresentation persists.
This is especially troubling considering the immense number of missing lower-income students capable of excelling at highly selective colleges.
In 2013, Harvard professors Caroline Hoxby and Chris Avery found that more than 10,000 low- and middle-income students who graduate from high school each year with stellar academic credentials don’t end up attending selective colleges — the schools that also happen to be those where they have the greatest chance of graduating. Research recently published showed that there are about 15,000 lower-income students each year who earn an associate degree at a community college, have an outstanding college GPA and never enter a bachelor’s program.
The talent is out there. So, what’s the problem?
This is largely a leadership issue. The presidents and boards of these colleges care about socioeconomic diversity, but changing the status quo requires resources, and other institutional priorities often take precedence. Despite some excellent examples of individual institutions making progress, the national situation was not improving.
Two years ago, we were part of a group of college and university leaders who concluded that this persistent inequity demanded attention.
We worked with Bloomberg Philanthropies and a group of high-graduation-rate colleges — now numbering more than 100 — to form the American Talent Initiative (ATI). ATI is based on the belief that colleges can achieve more by working together — making shared commitments to prioritize socioeconomic diversity, holding one another accountable and sharing strategies that work — than by going it alone. Unlike previous attempts to address this challenge, we’ve set a concrete goal: enroll and graduate 50,000 additional low- and middle-income students per year at high-graduation-rate colleges and universities by 2025.
As members of ATI, college leaders can together elevate the priority of socioeconomic diversity by demonstrating its value to students and to society. A strong America depends on a strong talent pool in science, industry, politics and the arts — one that can be grown only if we are fully inclusive in who we seek to educate at high levels.
Suggesting that colleges already enroll enough low-income students and pitting low- and middle-income students against one another for scarce spots won’t achieve gains for either group. Arguments like these further stack the deck against change, and make complacency even easier than it already is.
Increasing educational attainment broadly — and especially for lower-income, first-generation and underrepresented minority students, who have historically had limited access to colleges and universities — is critical to social mobility and America’s economic competitiveness.
Our nation’s most selective colleges and universities have work to do. Suggesting otherwise supports the status quo: a system that leaves exceptional talent on the sidelines while reinforcing the privileged position of the wealthiest.