How Low-Income Students Are Fitting In at Elite Colleges

People from the richest quarter of the population outnumber those from the poorest quarter by almost 25 to one at the nation’s most selective institutions.

A student sits on the steps of Widener Library at Harvard University. (Brian Snyder / Reuters)

In recent years, college campuses have been rocked by black students protesting racial bigotry, and women’s groups denouncing sexual harassment. But in the age of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump’s class-based politics, we’re beginning to see something new: the rise of low-income and working-class students protesting longstanding inequalities on campus that in the previous decades were mostly ignored.

The new movement took center stage this past weekend as the Harvard College First-Generation Student Union hosted a conference of 350 students and administrators, mostly from Ivy League institutions, that called for boosting the presence of disadvantaged students on elite campuses and reducing their alienation.

Ana Barros, a low-income senior at Harvard, said when she first arrived as a freshman she felt marginalized and out of place in a sea of wealth. As I noted in a speech at the conference, students from the richest quarter of the population outnumber those from the poorest quarter by almost 25 to one at the nation’s most competitive colleges and universities.

While there has been a lot of talk in the last decade about increasing socioeconomic diversity at selective colleges, the numbers have remained flat despite growing levels of economic disadvantage among the nation’s student population.

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.

First-generation students face extra obstacles and struggle to graduate nationally. After six years, only 11 percent of low-income, first-generation students graduate. The figure is better (25 percent) for first-generation students who are not low-income, but this graduation rate is still less than half of the level for students who are not low-income and not first-generation (54 percent).

Of course, a gathering of first-generation college students at Ivy League institutions necessarily involves a somewhat uncomfortable mix of egalitarianism and elitism. As the University of Wisconsin sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab reminded participants, for students at community colleges, the issue is not what to do when the dining halls close for spring break, but rather, how to build food pantries for commuting students who are hungry all year long.

But the issue of making elite campuses welcoming to low-income and first-generation students matters, too. Research finds that roughly half of government and half of corporate leaders are educated at just 12 leading universities. Society is better off if some of those future leaders know what it is like to struggle economically.

Organizing around first-generation status may gain new salience in the months ahead. Sometime before the end of June, the U.S. Supreme Court is slated to rule in a challenge to racial preferences in admissions in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas II. Supporters of affirmative action are pessimistic about their prospects. At oral arguments in December, it appeared that the justices were lining up 5-3 against Texas’s use of race in admissions. (Justice Elena Kagan is recused.) With the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the vote is still likely to be 4-3 against UT Austin.

Such a decision would be seen by many liberals as a major defeat, but it would likely spur universities to create new forms of affirmative action that look at economic disadvantage, including first-generation status. States where racial affirmative action has been banned at public universities— from the University of Washington to the University of Florida—have almost universally adopted alternative programs based on socioeconomic factors such as parental education and income. The type of students I saw at the 1vyG conference—a beautiful mix of black, Latino, Asian, and white pupils of working-class backgrounds—could become much more prevalent on elite campuses.

New class-based affirmative action programs could scramble current political coalitions. Politicians such as Donald Trump have perfected the art of diverting white working-class voters with hateful messages about Mexicans and Muslims. But other appeals can be made to this set of Americans. The civil-rights strategist Bayard Rustin noted that lower-middle-class whites are neither liberal nor conservative: they are both. And how issues are framed can determine how they vote. Rustin and his colleagues, A. Philip Randolph and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., dreamed of a multiracial class-based coalition of Americans. That’s precisely what I saw in the student’s faces last weekend.

Moreover, these young people were proud of where they had come from and the hurdles they had surmounted. Ana Barros said, through tears, that she had entered Harvard a few years earlier with feelings of shame and isolation given how different she was from most of her classmates. Now, surrounded by hundreds of working-class students from elite colleges, she said it was time to claim first-generation status as “a badge we can proudly wear.” She concluded, to a standing ovation, “Thank you for giving me a community.”