Insight | January 18, 2016

True Merit: Ensuring Our Brightest Students Have Access to Our Best Colleges and Universities

Censeo had the privilege of being part of the data analysis team that supported the Jack Kent Cooke study, “True Merit: Ensuring Our Brightest Students Have Access to Our Best Colleges and Universities.” This report, and excerpt of which is featured below, explores how high-achieving, low-income students are systematically disadvantaged in applying to or attending selective universities despite a strong likelihood of academic success.

The admissions process used today in America’s most selective colleges and universities is a classic case of interest group politics gone awry. Athletic coaches lobby for athletes. Trustees advocate for students who are the children of potential donors. Faculty members lobby for the children of other faculty and for high scoring students, who tend to be wealthy. And nobody champions or fights for smart, low-income students.

The result is an admissions process reduced to a series of preferences. Taken together with other widely-used admissions practices, such as allowing applicants who take the SAT multiple times to submit only their highest scores, these preferences are part of a system that is profoundly unfair to top students from low-income families. Access to our nation’s best colleges and universities is increasingly a function of wealth and station, not academic merit.

It comes as no surprise therefore that American postsecondary education is highly stratified by socioeconomic class, with 72 percent of students in the nation’s most competitive institutions coming from families in the wealthiest quartile. High-achieving, students from the bottom socioeconomic quartile are only one-third as likely to enroll in selective colleges and universities compared to those from the top socioeconomic quartile. In short, 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. This unequal treatment cheats the striver out of obtaining the best education available and denies society at large the benefits of having the most educated workforce possible. It’s a story of demography determining destiny.

This past December 2015, the United States Supreme Court began re-evaluating the role of race-conscious affirmative action in college admissions with the re-argument of the case of Fisher v.

University of Texas. For the second time, the Court is reviewing the constitutionality of the University’s admissions program. The fact that the Supreme Court has chosen to hear the case again does not bode well for race-conscious considerations in college admissions. There is no better time to examine how selective colleges and universities choose their students, particularly as our research suggests many admissions criteria unfairly prevent many of our most talented low-income students from gaining admittance.

Although individual aspects of college admissions have been analyzed before, in this report we for the first time comprehensively analyze the entire admissions process as it impacts the high achieving, low-income applicant to a selective college or university. Our conclusion: the deck is stacked against them, notwithstanding the advent of “need-blind” admissions and the claims made by selective colleges and universities that they are trying to accommodate the low-income student. We find that there is significant evidence that most low-income students lack the information to navigate admissions practices effectively and that many top low-income students, because of “sticker shock,” are deterred from even applying to highly selective schools. We conclude that the preferences and some other admissions practices at highly selective colleges and universities, taken together, have resulted in a surprising, and probably inadvertent, result: Being admitted to a selective institution is actually harder for the high-achieving, low-income student than for others.

We were also surprised by both the extent of the individual disadvantages and the uniformity of approach across all highly selective colleges and universities reviewed. On the other hand, we were encouraged to find that the vast majority of high-achieving, low-income students who do manage to enroll in selective colleges and universities succeed at a high level.

To address the problems uncovered, we believe that selective colleges and universities should institute a preference for otherwise qualified students who come from low-income families. Such an approach would recognize that to overcome the burdens of poverty and nonetheless perform at a high level is itself an indicator of ability and perseverance; true merit, properly understood, recognizes both scholastic achievement and the importance of the distance traveled from a low-income high school to an elite college or university.

If the Supreme Court limits the extent to which institutions can rely on race-conscious affirmative action, reliance on a preference for low-income students will be an important admissions criterion to insure diversity in their entering classes. Not only—in the words of President Obama—is there still an “intersection” between race and income in this country, but our dramatically decreasing social mobility makes emphasis on economic indicators all the more imperative.

Read the full report here: