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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