Should Elite Universities Have Preferences for Low-Income Students?

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation has just launched the latest offensive in the war over admissions to the supposed elite of America’s colleges and universities. 

Holding a long-entrenched position on the battlefield are the defenders of legacy preferences and advocates of racial preferences. In its report entitled True Merit, the Cooke Foundation advocates economic preferences so that smart students from relatively poor families can have their fair share of the small number of spots at schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford.

Such students comprise a mere 3 percent of the student bodies at top schools, according to the report.

That’s a problem because, it says, “We are relegating our brightest minds from low-income families to attend institutions with fewer resources, lower graduation rates, lower paying employment prospects, and reduced access to the upper echelons of leadership and commerce.” 

The authors explain why getting into the nation’s elite universities is especially hard for students from poorer families.

First, many don’t think they can afford to attend a prestige school, even though most  give big tuition breaks to students from poorer families. Many students just see their enormous “sticker prices” and forget about those schools, quickly “settling” for a low-cost public institution close to home.

Second, they don’t receive good high school counseling and may assume that they don’t really “belong” at a top school. The report cites the experience of a good student from rural Nebraska who said that she and all her classmates were encouraged to apply to the University of Nebraska. When she asked about attending a private university, her counselor didn’t have much knowledge about them or their requirements.

Third, the report notes, lower-income students are penalized because some of the elite schools favor applicants with “demonstrated interest.” That entails visiting the campus in person, which may be too costly for a family of limited means.

It’s easy to accept the report’s conclusion that the deck is stacked against good students from poorer families who want to attend a prestigious college.

But why does this matter? Because, the report states, “high-achieving students who attend more selective schools graduate at higher rates, earn higher incomes, and are more likely to pursue a graduate degree.” 

The data presented show marginal differences in each of those categories. For example, high-achieving lower income students complete their bachelor’s 92 percent of the time at “most competitive” institutions, but only 85 percent of the time at “very competitive” institutions, 76 percent at “competitive” institutions and only 54 percent at noncompetitive institutions. 

Those differences exist, the report suggests, because top schools have more resources to help students succeed. As selectivity (“competitiveness”) declines, the less schools spend on student support. 

That’s true, although there are probably other factors at work, especially individual drive and ability. The student who seeks out Princeton and gets in is likely different in some important ways from the student who is content to enroll at, say, the University of Nebraska.

This brings us to the big point of the report. It claims that because of the “undermatching” of academically good students with colleges with fewer resources, America wastes brainpower by “denying society the benefits of having the most educated workforce possible.” 

I’m skeptical that low-income preferences would make any difference in that regard.

First, it’s doubtful that admissions offices can accurately identify “high-achieving” students from poor families. That’s because the report’s recommended admissions policy would focus more on how well a student did in high school and less on other indicators of academic ability such as standardized test scores and AP courses taken. 

Here’s the problem with that: A student who looks excellent compared with his high school classmates can nevertheless be poorly prepared for the level of work expected at an elite college.

A good illustration of that problem is the case of an inner-city Los Angeles student, Kashawn Campbell, who was the academic star of his school and was offered admission at UC-Berkeley. His reading and writing ability, however, was so far below that of his classmates that he barely avoided flunking out. (The L.A. Times told his story.) 

We should expect that preferences for low-income students will lead to some academic mismatch, just as racial preferences often put students into academic environments where they can’t compete. 

Would low-income preferences really be much different from racial preferences? “True Merit” admits that lower income preferences would be a different, legally acceptable way to achieve the “diversity” that nearly all of the top schools aim at if the Supreme Court rules against racial preferences in the Fisher case

Exchanging racial preferences for low-income preferences at most slightly alters the composition of the body of preferred students who get to attend elite schools. That can’t make any real difference in the education of our workforce.

Secondly, the report’s assumption that America would benefit from a “better-educated workforce” by enrolling more high-aptitude, low-income students in top colleges is questionable. 

Even if those schools do provide superior education and support, all that any admission preference system does is to shuffle around where a small number of students go to college. Given the limited number of places available in these institutions, an increased number of lower income students admitted has to be offset by rejecting an equal number of students who don’t qualify as lower income. 

Thus, the report’s mistake is to focus entirely on the presumed gains from increased numbers of lower-income students, while ignoring the losses this admission preference necessarily entail—the students who have to attend “lesser” schools.

If we want to make the most of our educational resources by matching students with the schools that are best for them, it’s hard to see how a policy of lower-income preferences accomplishes much.

Although the authors don’t make a convincing case in favor of low-income preferences, they do make strong ones against two other kinds of preferences that  fill up the student bodies at top schools—athletics and legacies. 

Quite a few places are reserved for students who wouldn’t make the cut on their academic qualifications, but are desired either because they’re good at a sport or because they have family connections.

I agree with the report—it’s a misallocation of educational resources to admit weaker students simply because the hockey team needs an excellent goalie or because Grandpa Smith might give more money to his alma mater if Junior Smith is enrolled. 

If schools can be persuaded to drop those preferences, fine. The best policy for filling those places wouldn’t be low-income preferences, but instead straight academic merit. That would replace the athletes and legacies mostly with high-achieving students (largely Asian) who are often rejected because the student body supposedly needs more athletes, legacies, and underrepresented minorities.

Admission preferences are clumsy tools for achieving social or educational ends. A much better approach is to identify academically sharp but lower-income students, then help them to find the best college and assist them through to their degrees. 

In fact, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation has been doing exactly that for years. The report is studded with success stories about its Cooke Scholars. Incidentally, many of them didn’t go to colleges you’d consider elite. That’s a silent admission that an elite college isn’t always best for a student.

Let’s have more intelligent philanthropy like that and avoid going further into the swamp of group preferences.