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

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."

This line of reasoning has several strands. One involves a simple loss of ambition on the part of universities and their leaders. Robert Zemsky, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote last year in The Chronicle of Higher Education that "colleges and universities are seen principally as providing tickets to financial security and economic status," rather than being involved in any larger public purpose. He noted that through the 1950s and 1960s many university presidents were leading public intellectuals. Agree with them or not, Clark Kerr, of Berkeley; Theodore Hesburgh, of Notre Dame; Kingman Brewster, of Yale; and others of their time played a larger role in public debates than almost any of their modern counterparts.

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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.

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