In a recent report for the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation called True Merit, my coauthor Jennifer Giancola and I note that the proportion of first-time, full-time freshmen receiving Pell Grants at noncompetitive colleges rose from 42 percent to 51 percent between 2000 and 2013. At the most highly competitive colleges, however, the proportion receiving Pell Grants barely budged during that time period, moving from 16 percent to just 17 percent. (Nationally, more than 40 percent of college students receive Pell grants).
The lowest socioeconomic quarter of the population accounts for just 3 percent of the student body at the most competitive colleges. The scarcity of low-income students, according to the UCLA law professor Richard Sander, rivals the representation of minority students in the pre-civil rights era.
At the Harvard-hosted conference, known as 1vyG, minority students and alumni at elite universities highlighted their initial surprise in learning that even the black and Latino students on campus often came from prominent families with highly educated parents. One study of selective colleges found that 86 percent of African Americans at elite colleges are middle or upper class.
Of course, the issue of class inequality at selective colleges has been around a long time. In a 1995 article in Harvard Magazine, entitled “Blue Collar, Crimson Blazer,” M. Elaine Mar recounted feeling ashamed that among such a privileged group of students, her parents lacked a college degree. Even among the other financial-aid recipients who needed to make money and participated in “dorm crew” scrubbing the toilets of classmates, Mar’s family earned less.
In a 2006 article, John A. La Rue, another low-income Harvard student who participated in dorm crew, recalled the awkwardness of coming to clean a student’s bathroom and finding a classmate from a small seminar. “It’s a lot more comfortable when I knock and no one’s home,” he said.
In the past, organizing students around low-income status has been tricky. “How can we celebrate a status we seek to lift students from?” asked Jeremy Wright, the assistant director of the University of Chicago’s Center for College Student Success, at the conference.
Hence the new effort to organize around “first-generation college status.” Barros told me that organizing around poverty makes some people uncomfortable, but that celebrating advancement—being the first in one’s family to attend college—has much broader acceptance. Whereas poverty is an oppressed state from which people wish to escape, overcoming economic obstacles to attend an elite college is a remarkable accomplishment, for which individuals rightly can take pride for the rest of their lives.
Moreover, first-generation status stakes a broader tent than limiting concerns to students who come from impoverished homes. Two-thirds of American adults lack a college degree, so the offspring of those adults constitute a considerably larger segment of the American population than the offspring of the poor.