Want Justice? Equality? Get the Low-Income into Good Colleges

An article entitled “Better Colleges Failing to Lure Talented Poor,” published in the New York Times found that America’s “talented,” high-achieving poor are failing to make it into our country’s better colleges and universities.

Of the roughly top 4% of graduating high school seniors from the lowest fourth of the income range, only 34% attended selective colleges. Compare this against a selective college attendance of 78% for high-achieving students in the top income quartile, and we find that academically talented, poorer students are half as likely to go to a good college as their richer counterparts.

These are not just numbers; these findings point to a key source of socio-economic disparity in America. After all, if access to the best colleges and universities in the United States is largely out of the reach of even the most qualified low-income students, what other ways are there of breaking cycles of poverty, racial inequality, and disenfranchisement?

The causes of this situation are complex and not easily understood — even the study’s authors recognize this. However, institutions of higher education need to recognize that keeping a quality college education within the comfortable reach of the many, not just the privileged few,  must come to be their top priority. Ultimately, education is the most effective way to combat cancerous, persistent prejudices and to close gaps of many kinds, including wage, gender, and racial.

For colleges, specific steps to increase the representation of low-income students might include intensifying efforts to recruit students among the rural and suburban poor (in addition to searching for students living in select urban areas, like New York and Los Angeles), simplifying and standardizing the process of obtaining financial aid (rather than having students navigate the jungle of disparate deadlines and forms to even be considered for aid at a school), and employing other ways to recognize promising high-school students outside the traditional and increasingly costly commercial avenue of the College Board, which administers the SAT and Advanced Placement programs on which college admissions offices too heavily rely.

It goes without saying that these measures can only supplement the meat of any effort seeking to bring the “talented poor” onto a campus: a vigorous financial assistance program that is, ideally, a combination of private backing and robust public funding. No amount of aggressive recruiting will do much good if the price is too high.

Skyrocketing tuition, high costs of living and rent, and challenging job prospects discourage a sobering majority of low-income high-achievers who look at selective colleges — traditionally, the sure path to personal and community success — and see something unattainable. This needs to change, or the dream of a just, equitable society succumbs to the threat of a world divided into the educated wealthy and an underclass structurally shut out of a world-class post-secondary education.

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