Amherst College is one of the oldest, most selective, and most prestigious liberal-arts colleges in the country. It has also made a huge commitment to recruiting talented students from all backgrounds, regardless of their ability to pay tuition. Today, nonwhite students outnumber white students on Amherst's central Massachusetts campus, and 23 percent of students qualify for federal Pell Grants.
President Obama wants more selective colleges to act like Amherst. "We want to restore the essential promise of opportunity and upward mobility that's at the heart of America," he told college presidents, nonprofit leaders and philanthropists at the White House last week. A college degree is the surest path to a middle-class life, he said.
Yet elite colleges face powerful incentives to enroll disproportionate numbers of wealthy students. Low-income students cost institutions money, rather than bringing in revenue; they don't tend to boost a college's ranking; and they can lack the resumes some admission offices look for.
Today, two-thirds of students at the nation's 193 most selective colleges come from the top income quartile and just 6 percent from the bottom quartile, according to the College Board. The White House has been taken with research that shows many high-achieving, low-income students are not heading to elite schools. Between 2008 and 2011, at least half of low-income students with high SAT scores didn't apply to a single selective institution that matched their ability, according to the College Board. Such students often head to nonselective community colleges and four-year schools, from which they're less likely to graduate.