To Enable Social Mobility, Start Before College

Ben Silverman, Columnist

A study by The Equality of Opportunity Project recently featured in The New York Times painted a dramatic picture of the socioeconomic statuses of students in elite colleges and universities: Students from the top economic 1 percent outnumber those from the bottom 60 percent at 38 top U.S. colleges, and most others are barely more equitable. The study is a reminder of the work left to do to expand access to higher education after centuries of restriction to the highest classes.

Since the 1960s, there have been a string of measures to encourage socioeconomic diversity in higher education, including affirmative action and the Pell grant for low-income students. But the intentions of the ’60s seem to have been washed away by the rising tide of income inequality that surged through the ’80s to today.

This inequality, which has only grown in recent years, is sustained by college admissions, as wealthier parents can provide better economic outcomes for their kids by helping them through their education. Private schools and a multi-billion-dollar tutoring and college-prep industry give affluent high schoolers an important boost in a harsh meritocracy. In addition, wealthy students benefit academically from support structures at home and school that low-income students may lack. Much of what makes high-achieving low-income students reluctant to apply for a top school, or what makes them fill out a financial aid form wrong, is simply a lack of experienced guidance. This confusion is exacerbated in homes that might not have the clearest idea about their economic future themselves.

So what can be done to encourage economic diversity in elite higher education? The most obvious solution is mandating more aggressive socioeconomic diversity policies. However, that isn’t a simple fix, especially for elite private schools that depend on huge endowments, partially gifted from wealthy parents. Despite this system of endowments enabling a blatantly anti-meritocratic dynamic in admissions, they are crucial to the functioning of higher education. Many exceptional students benefit from the financial aid and resources provided by endowments.

A more workable solution is to address the problem during high school, when students are considering colleges and building their applications. There are myriad obstacles in lower-economic strata that favor wealthier college applicants. For example, in 2013 the Brookings Institution found that most low-income students who attain top-5 percent academic standing in high school don’t even apply to top schools for various reasons like finances, estrangement from home community and an underestimation of a college degree’s value, which today averages about $500,000 over a lifetime. In a case study by another New York Times journalist from 2012, one student who had already made it to Emory University had to drop out in her penultimate semester after filling out a financial aid form incorrectly and working multiple jobs needed to pay off the excess debt.

Bridging the gap in support structures during primary school ought to be the next priority for activists pushing for economic diversity in higher education. School administrators and the media can each do their part to support low-income kids by increasing education about the job market and the necessity of a college degree for many fields. Finally, they can make sure high schoolers know what futures are available to them, including top schools and financial aid options.