Sometimes, vague can be misleading—and harmful. For years, colleges have identified disadvantaged students based primarily on “diversity” and “need.” But those categories are broad and unspecific, and can be gamed by sophisticated applicants and parents. The result? Schools aren’t helping the students that really need it. And higher education is now perpetuating – rather than alleviating – inequality. We can reverse this pattern by learning from our education history and shifting the focus of that aid effort to first-generation college students.
The key here is this: colleges need to get more specific about who they want to help, and why. Universities’ commitment to “diversity” is important, but it’s a poor substitute for a policy of equal access for the disadvantaged because “diverse” students and disadvantaged students are not necessarily one and the same. Several studies have shown that beneficiaries of diversity-based admissions policies typically hail from the most well-educated and economically successful segments of “diverse” communities. That’s why a diversity strategy will not help universities reclaim their mission of fostering socio-economic mobility.
Focusing on first-generation college students, on the other hand, just might. These are the students whose parents never attained a bachelor’s degree from a U.S. college, and they’re a much better proxy group for those who are truly at a disadvantage in education. First-generation students typically attend secondary schools with fewer academic and financial resources. Yet we don’t have to look hard to find examples of students who demonstrate strong academic potential and have the discipline and perseverance to achieve long-term success. Howard Schultz, Starbucks CEO; Kathleen McCartney, President of Smith College; Colin Powell, former Secretary of State; and Associate Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Supreme Court Justice – all first-generation college students – are just a few examples of tremendous academic potential of these students.
So, how do we unlock all that potential? It’s easy to propose an outreach strategy to first-generation students, but harder to implement one. The 250 or so oversubscribed institutions that admit a fraction of thousands of applicants too often crowd out the smart but poorer students. High-ability students born to poor, uneducated parents have the most to gain from higher education and the most to lose as a result of current inequities. We need to remove some of the roadblocks in the present system, especially at selective institutions of higher learning.
Here’s one such roadblock: Many universities—an overwhelming majority, in fact—practice “need-sensitive” admissions and don’t accept academically able but poor students, at least in part because they cannot pay. And then there’s merit-based financial aid, which also gives wealthier students an edge: schools often use it to climb the infamous U.S News & World Report rankings, as Stephen Burd reports in a recent paper. No one is arguing that merit doesn’t matter, but we need to scrutinize merit aid awards more closely. The metrics most colleges use to define “merit” favor affluent students, whose schools have the resources to support standardized testing prep, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes and exams. And it’s not just colleges that are contributing to this problem: Even lower-income students who receive the maximum Pell award may be left with a significant financial burden because the government isn’t holding colleges accountable for rising costs. Too many students face an untenable choice: financing their college educations with costly student loans or forego higher education altogether.
The cumulative impact of these roadblocks is clear. Students from affluent backgrounds graduate from college at six times the rate of children from low-income households. For lower-income students, merely going to college is an achievement. Fewer than 30 percent enroll in a four-year college. Of those poorer students who do matriculate, fewer than half graduate. The most damning statistics concern high-achieving students from low-income households. Even when students from low-income households outscore higher-income peers, they graduate from college at a lower rate. This data belies the notion, once extolled by universal schooling proponent, Horace Mann, that our institutions of higher education are “great equalizers.”
To make good on the past, we need to discuss how data sometimes drives – and misidentifies – our priorities. The Department of Education mandates that colleges report a massive amount of information about their students, including test scores, graduation rates, average net price paid per student, and demographic information such as race and sex. But it neglects to ask colleges about their students’ first-generation status—sending schools the message that this status isn’t a government priority (an impression compounded by the fact no comprehensive database indicates how many such students are admitted to institutions that receive federal funds).
Even if the government were asking for data about first-generation status, universities aren’t likely to happily fork it over. In response to inquiries I made in connection with a forthcoming research paper on first-generation students’ access to higher education, administrators at numerous selective universities claimed to have no idea whether their students hail from Ph.Ds. or from high school drop outs. The data that I did manage to collect indicates that first-generation students constitute a fraction of the student bodies at selective colleges and universities. In 2011, for instance, only five percent of matriculating freshmen at the University of Michigan, and in 2013 just nine percent of matriculating freshman at the University of Virginia—both taxpayer-supported universities that enroll thousands of students—were first-generation college students.
The best way to address the social and economic inequality embedded in higher education policy is to tackle it at its roots. Admissions officials can start by practicing need-blind admissions, asking students whether their parents graduated from a four-year college, and consciously seeking to admit academically competitive first-generation students during the admissions process. Colleges should provide adequate financial support for low-income first-generation college students and the federal government must replace costly loans with grants for a greater number of needy students. The government can also look to its past for precedent to craft a legislative solution. Both the 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (“GI Bill”) and 1965 Higher Education Act (part of The Great Society) offer models for providing educational benefits and access to those who are most in need.
The inclusion of greater numbers of students from the bottom rungs of society in higher education need not be a zero sum game. This isn’t about displacing wealthier students. It’s about enriching the student body, and making college better for everyone with the potential to attend.
Tomiko Brown-Nagin is the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law and a Professor of History at Harvard University, where she is the co-director of the Program in Law and History. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.