With Focus on Elite Schools, Media Ignores Disadvantaged Students

Editorial Board

April 1 is a long-awaited day for many high school students: the day colleges notify applicants of admission decisions. Yet the image of the anxious high school senior waiting by the mailbox or frantically refreshing their email fails to represent the reality for a majority of prospective and current U.S. college students.

In a March 30 feature on the statistics-driven blog FiveThirtyEight titled “Shut Up About Harvard,” Ben Casselman lays out data from the U.S. Department of Education in an attempt to disprove a pervasive stereotype. Despite a widespread perception of college applicants as AP-taking, SAT-practicing students vying for spots at four-year Ivies or other elite private colleges, almost 75 percent of undergraduates attend schools with acceptance rates at 50 percent or above. Almost half of all students in higher education attend community colleges. Common associations of residential college life — young 20-somethings immersed in academics full-time, attending dorm parties and playing intramural sports on weekends — do not encompass the significant number of students who attend school part time or are 25 and older.

Casselman criticizes The Atlantic, The Washington Post and even his own editorial staff for limiting coverage to the race for spots at elite colleges. Along with the high stakes atmosphere that comes with the increasingly demanding process of admission to top universities, a likely cause of this reporting blindspot is the fact that most newsrooms are filled with editors and writers who emerged from a small number of elite colleges. Yet while his article mentions the word “elite” seven times, Casselman and others gloss over the root of the problem, or at least avoid mentioning it by name: class.

Financial elitism is a major force driving education disparity in the U.S. The so-called “achievement gap” is less often about any particular student’s drive or talent than it is a result of systemic marginalization of minority and disadvantaged students due to public funding cuts and an overemphasis on standardized testing, among other factors. Academic and financial achievement are commendable goals for any student, but the ability to accomplish them is feasible for only a portion of middle- and upper-class college hopefuls. Not all students have the means or the desire to attend an elite private college, barring them the benefits such an education may provide.

The truth is, moreover, that students from more affluent backgrounds tend to be more attracted to the prestige many elite institutions advertise than do their less-affluent peers. Schools with healthy alumni support and endowments relative to their lower-profile public counterparts — colleges like Oberlin, Yale University, Northwestern University and others Casselman mentions — can theoretically afford to fund scholarships for lower-income students who may not otherwise apply in the first place. And while many of the nation’s top institutions make some effort to do so, many do not go far enough. The result is a financial-academic feedback loop in which many wealthy students continue to find a place at schools while the less wealthy are discouraged from aiming so high. Prestige remains intact, of course, but students in the middle and bottom are forgotten.

Oberlin has prestige and money, but the latest draft of its Strategic Plan suggests that those selling points may not last. As Oberlin — and elite private colleges across the nation — come to terms with the unsustainability of their business models, a more urgent question arises: If not now, when? If, when financially stable, Oberlin and its peers do not make a top-tier education as accessible as possible for lower-class students, how will they do so once endowments begin to noticeably shrink and when they can no longer back up a sense of prestige with the dollars to prove it?

Lower-income students will continue to look elsewhere, but so too may affluent students. And when more of the nation’s upper-class students seek out a well-rounded education from colleges who can afford to provide one, you might start to hear less about Amherst College and more about the University of Massachusetts, just across town.