College Admissions 2004 October 2004

The Big Picture

Our annual survey of the admissions landscape uncovered recent and upcoming changes to the process, growing concern about tuition increases, and serious questions about whether colleges are fulfilling their mission

Lloyd Thacker, of the Education Conservancy, in Portland, Oregon, says that the role of sports in Ivy League admissions is becoming widely noticed. "I think deans are trying to do a good job" (that is, are trying to admit only qualified athletes), he says. "I just think there are institutional pressures. Any real change has to come from presidents demonstrating leadership beyond their own institutional self-interest." (In the summer of 2003 the Ivy League presidents did raise academic standards for athletes and limit the number of recruits.) Tom Parker, of Amherst, thinks the first step toward addressing this problem—and the related one of "legacy" admissions—is to be completely honest about them. "Schools should come right out and say, 'We are practicing affirmative action. This is our admit rate for legacies. We reserve X places for athletes.' These people get in at the cost of academic standards, and it should be said, because everybody knows it. Pretending otherwise just engenders cynicism." In the meantime, though, prospective Ivy Leaguers might want to stay in shape.

The financial squeeze

One prospect worried the people we interviewed more than any other. It was the financial pressures that together threaten to make four-year colleges, especially private ones, largely the preserve of the well-off—a reflection of social advancement rather than a means toward it.

The individual forces behind this shift are familiar: the polarization of incomes; the squeeze on state and federal support for higher education; the already high cost of private education and the rapidly rising cost of public institutions. Another factor is the boom in "merit aid" programs at schools both public and private. Merit aid is financial assistance given for reasons other than financial need, and it is the fastest-growing category of financial aid. This is because merit aid helps colleges attract students with higher SAT scores, and from more-prosperous families, than might otherwise enroll. Steve Goodman, an independent educational consultant in Washington, D.C., offers the example of a student he was advising who was accepted by Syracuse. "The school threw six or seven thousand dollars at him that he didn't need," Goodman said. "They offered the money to be sure he would come." Michael Sexton, the dean of admissions at Lewis & Clark College, in Portland, Oregon, says that the use of merit aid depends mainly on where the institution stands "on the food chain" of colleges. "For those of us just below the upper echelon, it's one of the tools we can use [to attract top students]." Since overall aid budgets have been flat, more merit aid means less need-based aid at all but the very richest colleges.

Taken together, these and other forces have convinced many officials that America's four-year colleges, though more international and ethnically diverse than ever, are becoming less socio-economically diverse. "Low-income students are not participating at adequate rates," says John Latting, the director of admissions at Johns Hopkins. "There's some real talent, and they're not participating in the most prominent institutions at nearly the rates that a pure meritocracy would suggest." Latting points out that from a college's point of view, it is more convenient in every way to stick with well-prepared students who attended well-funded high schools and whose families can cover tuition without assistance. "Recruiting low-income students is expensive and requires you to take a hit in the apparent quality of your class," he says, because they generally have lower test scores. "But you have to be willing to do that, because so many things in the application process are biased toward standpoints and values ingrained in the upper class." Similar concerns were expressed time and again in our interviews. Richard Shaw, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Yale, described how the complexity of financial aid was another barrier to less well-off students, who are "having a hard time just taking the first step to consider college." The bad news, Shaw said, is that selective colleges are becoming economically stratified. "The good news is that it's becoming a major topic." This year Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard, announced that the university would waive all costs for students from families with an annual income below $40,000. (Of course, such students would still have to get into Harvard in the first place.)

William Bowen, the president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a former president of Princeton, has recently argued that selective universities have turned into "bastions of privilege" rather than "engines of opportunity," because the whole process that leads students to different levels of education is so heavily biased against the poor. For instance, in families from the bottom 25 percent of the income distribution not even one third of students take the SAT. In families from the top 25 percent more than two thirds do. To help correct such disparities, Bowen has recommended not just need-blind admissions but "class-based affirmative action" to run alongside race-based programs. Indeed in a report last year for the Century Foundation, called "Socioeconomic Status, Race/Ethnicity, and Selective College Admissions," Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose argued that elite-college admission was far more heavily skewed against low-income students than against racial minorities. "There are large numbers of students from families with low income and low levels of parental education who are academically prepared for bachelor's degree attainment, even in the most selective colleges," they wrote. "Their numbers are far larger than those who currently attend." Carnevale and Rose estimated that as many as 300,000 low-income students now have the potential to succeed in four-year colleges but do not attend them.

Rod Skinner, the director of college counseling at Milton Academy, a private school outside Boston, says that the shift toward merit aid and away from need-based programs raises a moral question about ensuring access to higher education. "If you look at the trends nationally, those who really need the money are not getting it, and therefore we have a sort of aristocracy emerging in college admissions." Cigus Vanni, of Cherry Hill, agrees, describing the phenomenon as "aristocratic socialism." There is an attitude, he says, of "this is my reward—I deserve it because I worked hard."

Tom Mortenson, a higher-education policy analyst in Oskaloosa, Iowa, points out that California's college and university system was designed from the start to give students from every social class a reasonable chance at higher education. Its three-level network includes community colleges throughout the state, the California State University system above them, and the University of California campuses, with their highly selective admissions, at the top. The intention remains, but the system is now under financial stress from underfunding and overcrowding. Peter Osgood, the director of admissions at Harvey Mudd College, in Claremont, California, points out that spaces have been cut from the UC system, diverting students toward crowded community colleges. "We're cutting things at a time when we should actually be physically building campuses," he says. "We're going to be in a world of hurt if we don't act soon."

College and America

People working in higher education aren't in it for the money. They care about scholarship, they enjoy working with young people, they believe that what they do matters. That may be why so many of the people we spoke with volunteered that the higher-education system was evolving into something less and less connected to any kind of public good. "Universities don't benefit society enough directly, on a day-to-day basis," the consultant Steve Goodman says. "They're supposed to serve the public interest, but they've become no different from insurance companies."

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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