Higher Education Watch
A “Poverty Preference” in College Admissions?

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, a philanthropic organization that awards scholarships to low-income, high-achieving high school students, is earning some well-deserved media attention for its comprehensive report on how and why colleges should attract more kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. The National Journal reports:

As the Su­preme Court grapples with wheth­er to ban the use of race in col­lege ad­mis­sions, a new re­port calls in­stead for a “poverty pref­er­ence” as a way of en­sur­ing that stu­dents of all back­grounds have an equal chance to at­tend elite schools.

The na­tion’s eco­nom­ic and cre­at­ive vi­tal­ity hinge on our abil­ity to find the bright­est young people to fill lec­ture halls at the best uni­versit­ies, Har­old Levy, executive dir­ect­or of the Jack Kent Cooke Found­a­tion and former chan­cel­lor of New York City pub­lic schools, told a hand­ful of re­port­ers at a roundtable this week. But right now, even the smartest low-in­come stu­dents make up just 3 per­cent of en­roll­ment at elite schools.

… One crit­ic­al com­pon­ent of get­ting more high-achiev­ing, low-in­come kids in­to these schools is con­vin­cing the in­sti­tu­tions them­selves that it should be a pri­or­ity. Most schools say they want stu­dents from all back­grounds. But many have taken just mea­ger steps to make that a real­ity.

The report draws attention to some very important defects in the way opportunities and benefits are distributed in this country. There really are structural barriers in place that prevent poor students from accessing elite education. And a “poverty preference” is a much more coherent way to level the playing field than affirmative action, at least as affirmative action is currently practiced by campus diversity bureaucracies.

At the same time, we worry that philanthropic efforts to expand opportunity for poor people often focus too narrowly on funneling them into elite colleges. To be sure, this is a worthwhile effort—we should be focused on making college admissions as fair as possible. But we should also be approaching a problem for the other end—that is, making an elite education matter less when it comes to determining a person’s life prospects.

As we’ve written before, the existing college-to-employment pipeline is deeply unfair. Many of the biggest employers, in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street, use university prestige as a proxy for intellectual ability, severely harming the prospects of students who either weren’t academically focused at age 17, or who, for personal or financial reasons, didn’t want to be a part of the elite education bubble. There are a number of ways to take on this problem, including creating a system of post-college national exams, or changing corporate recruitment policies, so that students from West Texas University and Chico State have a fair shot at competing with students from Princeton and Yale.

The populist tone of the 2016 campaign may suggest that ordinary Americans on both sides of the aisle feel that elites are hogging opportunities and privileges, and shutting them out from the best of the American dream. Our society should address this—not only by further opening access to elite schools, but by creating more paths to success that bypass the those schools entirely.

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