Socioeconomic Diversity at Our Best Colleges

By on June 4, 2011

This post is a response to this New York Times article from May 24, 2011. Socioeconomic diversity is a problem at our country’s leading colleges, and Tony Marx, the former president of Amherst College has taken the lead on addressing this issue.

Meritocracy in college admissions is more than an issue of who gets accepted and who doesn’t – our national interest is at stake. In a survey of the class of 2010 at the 193 most selective colleges in the country, only 15% of students came from the bottom half of the income distribution while 67% came from the top quarter of the income distribution.

Tony Marx, the president of Amherst College for the last seven years, made improving the level of meritocracy at Amherst the goal of his presidency. Marx recognizes that, for better or for worse, elite schools have a disproportionate influence on our society, and a lot of the country (read: low income folks) is effectively excluded from these elite institutions. Solving this problem means attracting the best applicants from across the income distribution – not just the best of the affluent applicants.

Amherst now leads the way in innovative ways to solve the socioeconomic problem, including:

  • Devoting more institutional resources to financial aid
  • Grants that have replaced most student loans so folks aren’t graduating with debt burdens
  • Special scholarships for low-income foreign students who can’t apply for Pell grants (the foundation of most financial aid packages)
  • Recruiting from high schools in low income areas – schools no other elite colleges make the effort to go to.

They’ve made some significant progress too. While 22% now receive Pell grants vs. 13% in 2005 and 62% of Amherst’s transfer students now come from community colleges, the problem is far from solved: only 44% of low-income students who earn high standardized test scores go to a four-year college, compared with 50% of high-income students with average test scores.

Solving this problem is expensive. It will depend on schools’ willingness to solve this problem as well as the government continuing funding for the Pell Grants. Solving the problem also means redefining how applicants are evaluated. The old metrics, such as SAT scores will not work – they are too easily gamed by wealthy applicants.

Lastly, solving this problem is about providing the students applying to elite schools the tools and resources they need to compete effectively. Transparency in the admissions process can go a long way towards achieving this. Everyone needs to know what it takes to get into these schools so they know what they need to strive for and can take the steps they need to to get there.

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  1. Ariana Arzani

    June 4, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    It is saddening to see the statistics, but at the same time there is significant progress in creating more diversity among America’s top universities. Students should go to college to gain knowlegde and indpendence, not be burdened for years to come with excessive student loans. These innovative ideas can surely help ease the load for load for students from the bottomw half of the income distribution.

  2. Pingback: Socioeconomic Diversity at Our Best Colleges | Blog | Best Education Website

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