Why Ivy League Schools Are So Bad at Economic Diversity

Elite universities should not be asking, “Why do we have so few low-income students?” but “How do we have so many wealthy ones?” 

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Yale Alumni Magazine’s cover announced this month that the university “seeks smart students from poor families.” As the illustration of a white man in a business suit reaching past low-hanging fruit demonstrates, Yale believes “they’re out there—but hard to find.” I guess my alma mater feels fortunate to have found me–a native of East Flatbush, Brooklyn and the descendant of a housekeeper, doorman, drug addict, and prisoner. I completed a Master’s and Ph.D there in African American Studies and Political Science in 2002 and 2006, respectively.

The article the cover refers to, “Wanted: Smart Students from Poor Families,” argues that decision-makers at this school and others (including Amherst and Vassar) are sincere in their efforts to both recruit more low-income students and make them “feel more at home” once admitted. The piece inadvertently reveals how the privileged point of view of trustees, administrators, and wealthy alumni donors present serious obstacles to these intentions ever manifesting into reality. Since graduating from Yale, I have taught courses at Williams College and Northwestern, published articles, as well as given lectures and trainings related to the politics of structural inequality. Here are three reasons why I believe elite universities and colleges continue to fail to economically democratize their student bodies.

The Fantasy of Achievement 

In the article, author David Zax—who graduated from Yale in 2006 and who says that he is a typically well-to-do Ivy League alumnus—is careful to clarify that it is the “high-achieving” poor student that Yale desires. Like most elite universities, Yale has a very specific view of what that means: high GPAs in “demanding” high schools and extraordinary character-defining extra-curricular activities. By the time I applied to Yale, I had been groomed as a scholarship student in majority-affluent feeder schools to succeed in conditions that guaranteed healthy GPAs. My attentive teachers in small classes delivered a curriculum that emphasized critical thinking skills, leadership capacity, and participation in mainstream institutions. Athletics and creative activities, studying in well-resourced libraries, and sessions with a seasoned well-connected college counselor were all required of me. Unsurprisingly, these nurturing environments allowed me to gain the credentials elite universities require. By society and the job market, I continue to be seen as a “high-achiever” in essence because I was never set up to fail.

No other kid from my block in East Flatbush was so lucky. At their truly public schools (not charters, not magnets, but common schools available to every family in the neighborhood), they routinely faced atrocious conditions including gun violence, overcrowding, and a curriculum that emphasized obedience over innovation. As outsiders to the college-prep “feeder system,” which includes a small number of competitive high schools including Philips Academy and Trinity, the students who persevere despite these formidable demands and manage to graduate, are rarely seen as “high-achieving” by schools like Yale. From the perspective of prep schoolers who have no grasp of the challenges presented by economic scarcity, the Collegiate Honor Roll Lacrosse captain easily surpasses the Benjamin Banneker High B+ student who lives in a shelter and works at Target after school to help out her single mother and younger siblings. The fantasy that all young people are running the same race blinds many university trustees, administrators, and admissions committees to the reality that they undervalue students who always have to run uphill.

The Rarefication of the 'Low-Income' Family

 My family was only poor by Yale standards. Although my father was incarcerated when I matriculated, my mother was highly functioning, held a white-collar administrative position in the federal government and owned her own modest condo. In his article Zax notes that 69 percent of this year’s freshmen are from families with annual incomes of over $120,000.  However, the median U.S. household income is $52,700. Rather sizable groups of Americans who are both well below the median and experiencing income declines include people who did not graduate from college and Southerners. Given that elite universities increasingly view themselves as global institutions, it is also worth mentioning that the international median household income is $10,000.

This broad view of the world’s economic reality suggests that elite universities should not be asking, “Why do we have so few low-income students?” but “How do we have so many wealthy ones?” There is no relationship between being intelligent and inheriting wealth.  Therefore, the only logical explanation for the disproportionate abundance of wealthy people in elite colleges and universities is that these private institutions consistently overvalue the performance and qualifications of youth from higher income brackets. We “poor” smart students are not rare exotic fruit, which can only be discovered through adventurous colonial missions. The presumption by some university administrators and admissions committees that we are “hard to find” may be related to stereotypes about relatively low income families that are routinely circulated in American popular culture (see for example the reality television programs Jersey Shore, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, or Maury).

The Myth that 'the Best' Is the Best for Everybody 

During my time as a student and now professor, I have met many youth from average-income families who are driven to succeed by a desire to address the systemic economic inequalities with which their parents and neighbors struggle. For some, using their diplomas to win high-paying positions that will enable them to support their immediate families is sufficient. Others believe participating in social movements that advance economic justice is the most effective way for them to help.

Elite universities like Yale, which are considered to be “the best,” do not necessarily provide the most competitive mentorship, rigorous curriculum, and financial support to students who are committed to social justice. Young people from communities that are marginalized within these institutions often face exhausting battles. Some professors can be disdainful of their real-world experience and styles of expression. Extra-curricular activities, such as study abroad programs in developing countries and service opportunities in everyday neighborhoods that are labeled “poor” by universities, alienate average-income students by aiming to provide “exposure” and “sensitivity” for students who are presumably from wealthy backgrounds and presumably have no familial ties to Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa, or the Caribbean.

Schools that are lower ranked and less rich but more committed to social justice—such as Antioch, Berea, or my current employer The New School—may be the actual bests for the normal-income student who is committed to economic equality. In their curriculum and admissions practices, these institutions of higher learning have centered concerns about systemic economic inequality. The experiences and perspectives of average income families are not rarefied but robustly reflected in these schools’ ethos and practice. The diversity of achievements by average income youth who navigate many obstacles to obtain an education are fully recognized. These are some of the steps elite universities like Yale, Amherst, and Vassar need to take in order to see their vision of an economically democratic student body become a reality.