Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Amid recession, some college admissions policies look at students' wealth

Amid recession, some college admissions policies look at students' wealth

By Steven Brint
Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Washington Post

In these agonizing months between the completion of college applications and the arrival of the first envelopes in the spring, many high school seniors and their parents are speculating about whether the economic downturn will harm their chances of admission to one of the nation's top colleges and universities. And a few well-to-do parents I know have even confessed their hope that hard times and declining endowments may have improved their children's chances of admission, as colleges look for full-paying freshmen.

Before the recession, most of America's wealthiest and most selective colleges and universities were following policies designed to increase the numbers of low- and moderate-income students on their campuses. First, they evaluated applications without consideration of parents' ability to pay, a practice known as "need blind" admissions. Second, if students qualified for financial aid, many of these colleges promised to meet their full demonstrated need.

But while about two dozen of the country's top-tier colleges and universities -- schools such as Harvard and Princeton, Williams and Amherst -- are maintaining these policies and, in a few cases, expanding their financial commitments to low- and moderate-income students, at schools just below this tier, admissions are becoming more "need aware." These schools are now making some admissions decisions with an eye to an applicant's ability to pay, and some are unofficially reserving new seats for those who can pay full freight.

Meanwhile, the top public universities -- the Chapel Hills, Ann Arbors and Berkeleys -- are moving to enroll larger numbers of out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition and therefore tend to be wealthier than in-state students.

Of course, wealthy families have always enjoyed an advantage at the top colleges. In the 1950s, Arthur Howe, the admissions director at Yale, calculated that at least two-thirds of Yale's students would need to pay their full way for the university to meet its financial obligations. Today, many institutions provide scholarship aid to more than a third of their incoming classes -- at Princeton nearly half receive financial aid -- but admits are, as a group, still much wealthier than the general population. SAT scores are strongly correlated to family income, so an admissions policy that favors high scores means a large proportion of students whose parents can pay $50,000 a year. High-income families can also support activities, such as playing violin with the city orchestra, that make for impressive applications.

And need-blind colleges and universities are not necessarily wealth blind. As Daniel Golden reported in his 2006 book, "The Price of Admission," some schools, such as Duke, have long made space in each class for "developmental admits" -- students who wouldn't be accepted but for wealthy parents or grandparents who might donate large sums to the school.

Still, in recent years the top three to four dozen private colleges and universities tried to enroll diverse classes and to meet the financial needs of all their students. This wasn't cheap -- by the early 2000s, tuition had become so expensive that even families earning as much as $180,000 a year were qualifying for financial aid grants-- but, in the boom times before the economic crisis, when endowments were growing by as much as 8 percent a year, institutions could afford it.

The situation has changed. As C. Anthony Broh, a higher-education consultant who has advised private colleges and universities on their admissions and financial aid policies, told me, the combination of recent endowment losses (many schools lost hundreds of millions of dollars when their investments plummeted), declines in annual giving and increased need among applicants has placed extraordinary strains on institutions just below the top two dozen. These colleges and universities, he said, "would like to follow the same practices as the top tier, but cannot afford to do it anymore."

Tufts University's experience offers a prime example. Admissions Director Lee A. Coffin described the situation his staff faced last year in an interview with the Tufts Daily. The admissions committee began deliberations with a need-blind approach, but when 95 percent of the class was full, it had to stop. Tufts had spent its entire financial aid budget. With 850 folders to go, Coffin and his colleagues could admit only the applicants who could pay full fare.

Bowdoin, Brandeis, Carleton, Colby, Grinnell, Middlebury, Reed and Washington University are among the other schools that have recently backed away from need-blind admissions or delayed plans to adopt such policies. To help make up shortfalls in their financial aid budgets, they have also increased the number of transfer, foreign and waiting-list students they accept, since students in these categories have never been considered on a need-blind basis and, in the case of foreign students, are not usually eligible for aid.

Brandeis, for example, increased by 10 percent the proportion of international students it accepted last year, and senior administrators at Tufts now travel regularly to countries including Mexico and India to build alumni networks that can help recruit full-paying students. Other schools have added seats with the intention of filling them with transfer, international and wait-listed students who do not require aid. Well-endowed Columbia University, which admits domestic students on a need-blind basis, is adding 50 seats to its fall 2010 freshman class. One can't help but wonder: Will these slots be filled by full-fare international students?

Meanwhile, the top public universities are admitting more out-of-state applicants, who pay higher tuition than in-state students and are not eligible for state-funded financial aid programs. The University of Michigan and the University of Virginia were two pioneers in this practice, and today about a third of their classes come from out of state. At Michigan, upper-division students from elsewhere pay about $37,000 in tuition -- only a few thousand dollars less than at a top private university. Non-resident tuition at the University of Virginia is not far behind. "We support many forms of diversity, geographic diversity among them," Virginia's dean of admission, Greg Roberts, told me. These out-of-state students don't just offer different perspectives, however: The tuition they pay covers 1 1/2 times the cost of their education.

All this can come at the cost of heightened social tension on campus. Last month, the Associated Press reported that at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a popular song about out-of-state "coasties," with lyrics referring to a "Jewish American princess" who wastes her father's money, has prompted charges of anti-Semitism. Tom Mortenson, an Iowa resident and a higher-education policy analyst who writes the newsletter Postsecondary Education Opportunity, told me that Iowa City has changed as the University of Iowa looks beyond state lines for a larger share of its student body. (Iowa enrolls the highest proportion of out-of-state students, 48 percent, of any large public university.)

"Students from Illinois brought truckloads of money. Suddenly, the streets were full of cars that were newer than those of the faculty. We brought in a bunch of rich kids, who partied and drank and got into trouble with the police," Mortenson said. "This isn't what public higher education is supposed to be about."

The budget crisis at the University of California, where I teach, has people wondering whether the UC campuses should follow the path pioneered by Michigan. Berkeley is already trying. Stunned by a more than $100 million funding cut, Berkeley will increase its share of full-paying out-of-state students from around 10 percent to more than 20 percent in one year, hoping to make as much as $15 million in the process.

California's governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, announced last week that he will introduce a constitutional amendment to shift state funding priorities away from prisons and toward higher education. But with political opposition to his proposal already forming, it is unlikely that the idea will slow Berkeley's push to enroll more out-of-state students.

Elsewhere, a few private institutions, such as Amherst College, continue to work hard to increase their proportion of students from low- and moderate-income families. In a recent interview, Anthony Marx, Amherst's president, told me that the school is motivated by a sense of social responsibility. "The big national question is: What do you do to make great education accessible to talented students whose families are not wealthy?" he said. "As a country, we have moved in the opposite direction. We won't see the full damage for a generation, and by that time the leaders and politicians who made the prior choices will be long gone."

Steven Brint is a professor of sociology and education and an associate dean of the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at the University of California at Riverside.

The College Admissions Scam

The college admissions scam

NOW IS the winter of high school seniors’ discontent. But then every winter is one of discontent as seniors file their college applications with a mix of dread and hope - mainly dread. Those applying to the most selective schools have the odds stacked against them no matter how sterling their high school records, though college admissions officers typically offer the cold comfort that rejection is not equivalent to failure and that, as one Yale admissions officer put it, “It matters far less which strong college admits you than it matters what you do with your opportunities once you are there.’’ To which most high school seniors would say, “Hogwash.’’

They know that it does matter where you go to college, if not educationally then in terms of social recognition and opportunity. They know that America, for all its professions of meritocracy, is a virtual oligarchy where the graduates of the Ivies and the other best schools enjoy tremendous advantages in the job market. They know that Harvard or Stanford or MIT is a label in our “designer education’’ not unlike Chanel or Prada in clothes.

So here is another, more realistic comfort to those anxious seniors who will soon be flagellating themselves as unworthy: The admissions system of the so-called “best’’ schools is rigged against you. If you are a middle-class youth or minority from poor circumstances, you have little chance of getting in to one of those schools. Indeed, the system exists not to provide social mobility but to prevent it and to perpetuate the prevailing social order.

Of course, colleges loudly deny this since it undermines their exceptionality. Instead, universities will protest that the system is meritocratic; that they consider every applicant objectively; that the admissions process is “need blind,’’ which means that financial support plays no role in whether an applicant is admitted or not.

Most of these assertions, however, are nonsense. Of course the odds are stacked against every applicant since the best schools admit only a fraction of them (less than 10 percent for most of the Ivies and just above 25 percent for selective schools like Northwestern and Emory), but as Daniel Golden demonstrated in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series for the Wall Street Journal and then in his book, The Price of Admission,’’ the so-called “best’’ schools give heavy preferences to the wealthy; as many as one-third of admissions, he writes, are flagged for special treatment at the elite universities, one-half at the elite liberal arts colleges, and the number of open spaces for the non-privileged is reduced accordingly. As Golden puts it, the privileged take so many spots that the “admissions odds against middle-class and working-class students with outstanding records are even longer than the colleges acknowledge.’’

Golden’s focus was on legacy admissions, which are essentially affirmative action for the rich and which provide huge advantages for applicants; on what are called special “development’’ applicants - thosewho do not qualify for admission under the ordinary criteria but whose parents have pledged large contributions to the school; and athletes who are, contrary to popular belief, not all poor ghetto kids adept at football and basketball, but are primarily wealthy white kids who are adept at lacrosse, rugby, crew and polo.

But while these are overt ways to provide advantages for the wealthy, there are far more insidious and subtle methods of skewing the admissions process. Take early admissions. Early admissions account for 35 percent of the incoming class at Duke this year, 20 percent at Brown, 50 percent at Yale and 40 percent at Stanford. Under most programs, early admittees are obligated to attend that school should they be granted admission. But early admissions favor the wealthy - in part because they are able to forgo weighing options for financial aid.

Then there is the “well-rounded student body’’ argument, which any parent accompanying his child on the college tour rounds has heard ad nauseam. According to this approach, colleges are not looking for the well-rounded individual student. They are aiming instead for a diverse student body: an exceptional athlete, an exceptional musician, an exceptional scientist, an exceptional poet. Except that exceptionality, as most parents can attest, doesn’t come cheap. Athletes require coaching and often traveling teams; musicians require lessons and instruments; scientists require labs and internships; poets require classes and opportunities for publication. None of these things is readily available to the average middle-class family, to say nothing of the high school student who must work at McDonald’s to earn spending money (even though colleges say they take this into account).

Nor does diversity extend to racial composition. Of course every college boasts about its efforts to enroll a more racially diverse student body. But here are the facts: A New York Times article in 2004 revealed that Harvard’s incoming freshman class was 9 percent black, but between one-half and two-thirds of those black students were actually West Indian or African immigrants or the children of immigrants, and many others were biracial. In short, they weren’t African-American. Another 2004 study, conducted by Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania, also found that 41 percent of blacks at 28 selective colleges and universities identified themselves as immigrants, underscoring the West Indian and African component.

The prognosis is equally poor for economically disadvantaged students, whether black or white. According to Golden, economic diversity counts the least in admission considerations, and only 3-to-11 percent of admittees come from the lowest economic quartile. In fairness, some universities, including Harvard, are offering full scholarships to financially strapped families, but this does not necessarily affect the admission of those students.

A counselor told me when my daughters were applying for college admission that the first thing I had to do was withdraw my application for financial aid. When I said that colleges professed to be “need blind,’’ she laughed. Any admissions officer, she said, could tell from your zip code whether you were likely to need aid or not, and students needing aid were much less desirable than those who didn’t need it.

But perhaps the most pernicious means of maintaining the status quo was devised, ironically, in the name of making the system more meritocratic. No one disputes that once upon a time elite schools were the preserve of wealth and influence. When the SAT was instituted in the 1920s it was done precisely in the name of changing the admissions process to a more egalitarian one. By providing an allegedly objective measure of a student’s intellect, the best schools could no longer be castigated as impregnable. Do well, get in. At least that’s what middle-class Americans dreaming of their children’s social advancement have been told.

In truth, the SAT, which is thankfully being phased out at many schools, has had the opposite effect. Far from opening the doors of elite schoools to outstanding students from ordinary backgrounds, it has wound up giving an objective patina to an unjust process. In some ways it is the great subterfuge. That’s because SAT scores correlate highly to family income - an average of 12 point increments for every $20,000 of income, which this year amounted to a 130 difference on critical reasoning, 80 points on math and 70 on writing between the lowest income and highest income groups. While correlation isn’t always causality, economics professor Jesse Rothstein of Berkeley has called it a proxy for other demographic components and for high school resources. And, not surprisingly, Professor George Kuh of Indiana University, has found that the US News list of best colleges has an almost 100 percent correlation to SAT scores, which means that the so-called best schools could just as easily be ranked by family income.

So here’s the bottom line for all those exceptional middle-class and lower-class high school seniors who will doubt their own worth when the near-inevitable rejection letters arrive: The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in you. The fault lies in the system, and the system isn’t going to change, because it benefits the people it is designed to benefit - people who understand how much a real meritocracy would threaten their power.

Neal Gabler is the author, most recently, of “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.’’