Poor Students -- Rich Ivies: Seeking Real Diversity at Ivy-Level Colleges

12/15/2016 04:02 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2017

Way back in 1997 when my book A is for Admission broke the Ivy League code of silence, I called for socio-economic diversity over purely racial diversity given the abuses/misuses I saw of race-based admissions at top colleges. Colleges, to boost their minority numbers, would count wealthy Jamaican or African students from abroad in their "African American" tallies and wouldn't think twice about taking privileged minority students who clearly had no economic or social disadvantage. Those who lost out in this case were low income inner city students who typically never ended up even applying to the Ivies, many of whom were white or Asian and not part of programs like QuestBridge or other minority-focused initiatives.

When I read about Michael Bloomberg's recent launch of the American Talent Initiative (ATI), which aims to expand college access for talented low-income students, I wanted to give him a giant hug. Elite college campuses should do a better job reflecting the population, period.

Two years ago when Bloomberg Philanthropies first announced they wanted to address the tens of thousands of high level, low-income students who were consistently not applying to nor attending top colleges, we advocated for increasing socio-economic diversity at top colleges. Why limit these opportunities by skin color?

As research indicated even then, the numbers were and are grim:
  • Over 50% of U.S. high level low income students do not apply to any selective colleges despite their qualifications.
  • 70% of students at the U.S.'s most competitive colleges are from families with incomes in the top 25% in the country
  • Only 6% of students at the top colleges in the U.S. are classified as low income

By the year 2025, ATI aims to recruit, enroll and graduate 50,000 additional low-income students at the 270 colleges that graduate 70% of their students within six years --and they have 30 top institutions, including Ivies, already signed on. As David Leonhardt highlights in his recent New York Times op-ed piece, Bloomberg is creating a coalition of colleges committed to diversity including public universities like Berkeley, Michigan and USC to private colleges like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Rice and Duke. We would hope all the Ivies would join this coalition along with top liberal arts colleges like Amherst, Williams, Middlebury, Swarthmore and Carleton, and stop focusing on minority "quotas" and more on serving the bottom 2/5 of the income distribution (fairly easily measured by Pell Grant recipients). Just as top colleges market to 10th and 11th graders based on race and PSAT scores, they could market to low income students so that inner city and rural poor students could learn about the financial resources available at top colleges.

I live in rural Vermont and even in our college town, many local students do not realize that it would cost them less to attend Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth or Princeton thanks to their "no loan" and generous financial aid policies (assuming they could get in) versus local colleges like Green Mountain College, Burlington College and St. Anselm (NH), all of which are featured in US News and World Report as "colleges graduating students with the most debt." In essence, these students would graduate with no loans from a top tier college instead of incurring a debt burden at a lower ranked school.

Many college applicants are confused on what defines "diversity." As I argued in the late 90's and hold fast to now, top colleges conflate the goals of diversity, affirmative action and equal opportunity so no wonder it's confusing. At the end of the day, schools are bound to their "diversity" numbers as they aim for maintaining an almost exact number of African American, Hispanic and Native American students year to year with no regard to income level. In fact, admissions officers at any information session you attend will tout their high percentage of "students of color" (usually 30% or higher) but the problem is they are counting Asian students in that number, despite the fact that admission rates are far lower for Asian students than for under-represented minority students. In effect, these admissions officers are labeling Asians "under-represented" and it's hypocritical and dishonest to report Asian students in the "students of color" number when Asians make up 18-20% of that 30% and actual under-represented minority students closer to 10-12%.

As Leonheardt states eloquently, "Making top colleges more diverse is not about replacing students of one race with students of another. It's about enrolling more working-class students of all races. It's about getting colleges to live up to their ideals."

Coming from a state with many white low income students who never even dream of leaving the state, no less attending a top college, I could not agree more.