The Biggest Barrier to Elite Education Isn’t Affordability. It’s Accessibility

It's not easy to get into America's premier universities, but for minorities and poor students, it's almost impossible. Can we level the playing field?

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Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters

A man walks through Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts November 16, 2012

In his State of the Union address, President Obama announced that his administration was taking a hard look at college affordability. The next day they released a website and calculator aimed at tracking college costs. No doubt this was welcome news to the hundreds of thousands of students who in the next few weeks will learn if some of our nation’s most selective — and most expensive — colleges and universities will offer them admission.

But affordability isn’t the only consideration for students who would like to pursue an elite college education. A bigger issue is the accessibility of these schools to students who are poor, minority, or the first in their families to go to college.

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Just consider the weight that Ivy League and other highly selective schools place on factors such as Advanced Placement courses, standardized tests, and high grade point averages. Even though exceptions may be made for students who are the first in their families to attend college or are from less-privileged backgrounds, given the academic rigor of our most selective schools, admissions officers are understandably hesitant to use an entirely different yardstick. This focus on academic excellence makes it far more difficult for students who don’t live in wealthy neighborhoods or attend college-preparatory high schools to gain entry to top universities. According to Caroline Hoxby, a Stanford economist, about 70% of low-income students who gain admission to elite colleges come from one of 15 large metropolitan areas, which host highly regarded public schools such as Stuyvesant in New York City or Thomas Jefferson in the Washington, D.C., area.

A recent report on Advanced Placement courses done by the College Board and reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education found that while nationally scores on Advanced Placement courses are rising, there are “distressing results” in the scores for minority students — more than 70% failed. And that’s just for the students who have access to such courses. A recent New York Times article found that Advanced Placement courses are not even offered in many poor and minority districts, according to information from the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, making it almost impossible for poor and minority students to be competitive applicants at highly selective schools.

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And of course, we have long known that black, Latino and poor students don’t score as well on standardized tests like the ACT and SAT as do wealthy, white students. Indeed, a 2012 study by a Stanford University professor published in the Center for Educational Policy Analysis showed that the gap between rich and poor students in educational achievement is wider than ever before. Yet, scores on such tests are still an important method for determining college admittance.

This is an unfortunate set of circumstances, especially because gifted minority, poor and working class students can benefit most from the educational opportunities at elite institutions. A June 2011 study from two Princeton University economists, which relied on 30 years of survey data, found that middle class, white and Asian students who had the grades and test scores to attend elite schools, but chose to enroll elsewhere faired as well economically as students who attended more selective schools. On the other hand, Latino, black, and low-income students, as well as those whose parents did not graduate from college, who could have attended an elite school but went elsewhere did not earn nearly as much over the course of their careers or rise up the corporate ladder to the heights achieved by their peers who attended elite schools.

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So it seems that the students who could gain the most from opportunities offered at our nation’s premier institutions face barriers not of their own making to gaining admittance to such universities. How is that fair?

Of course schools must have selection criteria that will convince them that the students they admit are capable of doing the work. However, unless we really believe that our most selective schools should be more easily accessed by the privileged and wealthy than by other types of students, it’s up to us to propose solutions.

Perhaps our elite schools should begin recruitment and educational support programs for poor and minority students in middle school, instead of waiting until high school. Or maybe they should provide incentives for creative faculty and student research aimed at closing educational opportunity and achievement gaps. Whatever the solution, we cannot hope to level the playing field unless we first admit that it is uneven.

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12 comments
LParadiso
LParadiso

I'm still not quite sure where professor Rooks is going with this piece but I do believe it essentially touches on the crux of the issue albeit tangentially. Don't know the statistics off the top but in general, the elites do a very good job of identifying underrepresented populations and encouraging them to learn more about what they can offer, so do lots of state organizations, NGOs and so forth. Free visits, bus tours, stay-overs, fly-ins, etc. are relatively commonplace these days. That's not to say these efforts cannot be expanded or enhanced but they are in place and they are effective. The dilemma goes deeper and is more complicated. The real obstacles, as I see them, are a lack of a college-going culture among most minorities, a lack of useful and enabling information and, more importantly, a lack of necessary preparation do the work. Contrary to what this article posits, admission officers at elite schools are well-versed on the educational disadvantages minorities struggle with and never hold these candidates to the same course or curricular expectations they do students from advantaged backgrounds. They realize the discrepancies and compensate for them in their decisions. What they cannot do is reform what doesn't exist in most schools serving these kids. The real poverty is in the educational preparation most underrepresented students don't get. No amount of access will trump the ineffective and inferior schools to which these students are presently doomed. Higher education in general and the elite universities in particular cannot re-engineer what our primary and secondary educational establishment has allowed to deteriorate to its present deplorable state. We celebrate over and over again the same remarkable public institutions as examples of what proper preparatory education should be and then ignore the fact that these are the rare exceptions and not the rule. Shame on us for tolerating such a disservice to our children, our future. This situation is patently neither the fault nor the responsibility of higher education to rectify. We as a nation need to wake up and prioritize what's really important and stop looking to point the finger at the every institutions which are courageous and dedicated enough to try to make a difference.

Lloyd Paradiso

steven1995tw
steven1995tw

Attending elite universities isn't the indispensable elements to success . It just a part of  being success ; however the certificate is needed

Elvisfofana
Elvisfofana

I find the term "Elite" education so incledibly wrong. Education should be accessible for everyone and should be at a super high quality level for everyone. The education of the next generation is the future of the nation and should be priority number one. Look at countries like Belgium : all university studies are accessible for everyone. Cost is merely around 500 to 600 USD a year for studies like medicine, etc... All the rest is paid by tax money and private investors/projects from the universities. Make it possible for every single citizen to become whatever he or she wants to become and you will have a better tomorrow. Why is that so hard to implement ?

david.chalk
david.chalk

Aren't the Ivy League Universities fundamentally kudos factories for rich kids? (like Oxford & Cambridge).  Because my bet is that how they operate is to allow the most academically brilliant poorer kids in to generate the Kudos that the rich kids benefit from. (The University then getting generous donations from the rich kids parents).

 In fact I would not be surprised that the real selection criteria is simply this - Will this person succeed regardless of whether he attends her or not?  If yes they get admitted and the University can 'piggyback' credit for their success.  If no then no admission.  

pendragon05
pendragon05

As if admission to an elite university will guarantee a high paying job!

How about a higher PRACTICAL school like a tech or career school? Get a degree in aerospace engineering, and you can get a job at Lockheed Martin, Honeywell, NASA - you get the picture.


MarkShiker
MarkShiker

You know, the Biggest Barrier to an elite sports car isn't the affordability.

A bigger issue is the accessibility of these vehicles to students who are poor, minority, or the first in their families to go to a German or Italian sports car dealership.

CrestSea
CrestSea

When admitted to elite universities under affirmative action, under qualified students do worse than they would have had they attended a lower tiered university. Earlier recruitment programs constitute more of the same; the real challenge (which probably won't be solved anyway) is of providing higher quality elementary and secondary education.

LouisPFreely
LouisPFreely

@Elvisfofana Make it possible for every single citizen to become whatever he or she wants to become and you will have a better tomorrow

So who's going to clean up toilets?

david.chalk
david.chalk

@pendragon05 These institutions do not exist to help anyone - they don't admit you unless they believe you are certain to suceed in any event.

commentonitall
commentonitall

@CrestSea 

That argument may hold water if there was not rampant grade inflation at the more prestigious schools.  They should grade based on a bell curve and that would alleviate the problem.  Too many students at these schools get free passes because of how much money their mommy and daddy donate and/ how many of their previous generations attended.

Elvisfofana
Elvisfofana

@LouisPFreely I doubt that we'll ever come in a situation whete we will actually ask that question (unfortunately). My statement is a goal. If we ever reach that goal, we will have a luxury problem that is much less of a problem than the situation we have now.

david.chalk
david.chalk

@LouisPFreely   In answer to your question what about the politician's?  Secondly why not have EVERYONE start at the bottom and work up?