Harold O. Levy is executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.
When I was chancellor of the New York City schools, I thought that if you were smart and poor, you could write your own ticket to college. I was dead wrong.
A new study by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, where I serve as executive director, reveals that only 3 percent of students at our most selective colleges come from the 25 percent of families with the lowest incomes, while 72 percent come from the richest 25 percent of families.
The unfairness of the situation is compounded by the fact that once admitted, poor students soar academically. According to our study, the poor students who do attend these elite schools graduate at equal rates and earn similarly high grades as their wealthy peers. The Cooke Foundation awards scholarships to exceptionally high-achieving low-income students; 95 percent of Cooke Scholars graduate from these selective schools with top grades.
Today at selective colleges we have affirmative action for the wealthy. More than 80 percent of the nation’s top higher-education institutions give a “legacy preference” to children of alumni. Even the “athletic preference” has been warped to give the rich a better shot. Football and basketball — in which poor and minority children excel in large numbers — get the most exposure, but more student-athletes get a leg up at elite institutions in sports such as squash, sailing, crew, horseback riding, fencing and water polo. There aren’t many water polo coaches in the New York City school system.
The academic playing field is otherwise skewed against smart poor children. The wealthy student gets a tutor (or at least a test-prep course) and can submit his or her best scores to colleges after taking the SAT or ACT multiple times. In contrast, the child of poverty gets a single test-fee waiver and takes the test only once and “cold.” (The College Board, to its credit, has sought to address the situation by offering Khan Academy test-prep services at no charge, which, although not the equivalent of one-on-one tutoring, is at least something.)
Early-admissions programs that require a student to commit to attending a school if accepted also unfairly hold back the poor. Early admission is an easier path to acceptance, worth as much as an extra 100 SAT points, according to one report . But children of poverty can’t apply early, because they can’t commit to a particular school until they know how much their financial aid package will be.
It goes on like this. Students from poverty are also often ill-advised by their high school counselors about college options. Public school counselors are stretched too thin — each advises, on average, hundreds of students — to give each student in-depth attention. So it is hardly surprising that only 23 percent of high-achieving low-income students even apply to a selective school, compared with more than twice as many — 48 percent — high-achieving students from families with higher incomes. As a result, many students are unaware of scholarships they are qualified to receive, and therefore don’t apply to these seemingly expensive selective schools.
While some schools do make attempts to find high-performing low-income students, the overall impact is meager. To reduce the impact of the poverty penalty levied against the brightest low-income students, we need a serious poverty preference in admissions to elite colleges and universities — amounting to affirmative action for these students. We do not advocate reducing the role of standardized tests, because admissions officers must have a way to compare students across schools. Without reducing standardized test requirements, admissions officers need to give more credit to low-income students for having achieved at a high level despite not having the advantages of enrichment courses, internships and foreign travel. This would help to level the playing field and open the door of opportunity for academically qualified students to attend schools that match their abilities. It would also provide a backdoor way to maintain ethnic diversity in colleges, particularly if the Supreme Court does away with race-conscious affirmative action in admissions in a case pending this term involving the University of Texas.
When many high-achieving low-income students apply to our nation’s top institutions of higher learning, they face a far harder road than more affluent students. Rather than get credit for having successfully overcome obstacles, they face an even more arduous path. All young people in the United States should have a fair chance at academic success, based on true merit, regardless of how much money their parents have. Having wealthy parents doesn’t make you smarter or more deserving of college admission. It just means you won the parent lottery.