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Why Few Poor Kids at Top Colleges Matters

Higher education has long been touted as a way out of poverty, but that only works if poor students enroll in quality universities. Right now, it's not happening, and income inequality is rising.

CAMBRIDGE, MA - FEBRUARY 21: Harvard University walk through the campus on the day Harvard University president, Lawrence H. Summers announced he is resigning at the end of the academic year February 21, 2006 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Summers will step down from his post after a turbulent five-years at the Ivy League school. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images) (National Journal)

There's a serious lack of socioeconomic diversity (read: there are very few poor people) at the nation's best universities.

According to a new study from John Jerrim at the Institute of Education at the University of London, students at elite American universities are far more likely to come from a professional or "white collar" background than to come from a working-class or "blue collar" background.

Here's why the lack of diversity is a red flag:

Higher education has long been touted as a way up and out of poverty, but that only works if the poor kids can get (and keep) access to quality universities. Right now, it's not happening and income inequality is rising. One reason so few low-income kids gain access is because of an academic achievement gap. Poor kids are less likely to test well, take advanced classes and earn top grades. According to the report, more than 20 percent of wealthy U.S. kids were considered high-achieving using international test results from 2009 as an indicator. Fewer than five percent of poor kids ranked as high-achieving.

The reason is not that low-income kids are not as smart. That's not true. But even as babies, studies show low-income kids are exposed to fewer words than wealthy kids. They also have parents who tend to have less flexible work schedules. Poor kids are also hit with the fact that not all public schools are created equal when they reach school age. Public schools get some of their funding from property taxes and kids from wealthy neighborhoods often attend better-funded, superior schools. They also have parents who tend to have more freedom to volunteer and participate in the PTA.

It's no wonder then, that by the time low-income kids begin to consider college, they face serious academic disadvantages.

There are global implications if the U.S. fails to do a better job of educating its increasingly diverse, both economically and racially, students.

An international study released today shows U.S. high school students lagging behind global averages in math and performing at just average levels in reading and science. The U.S. doesn't break the top 20 countries in any of the categories. While the U.S. still has some of the best universities in the world, there are a growing number of students unable to reach them. And as employers become more global, they may increasingly turn to countries like Singapore in Japan, who produce top students, instead.

The Jerrim report has some good news, though:

Jerrim found that while a lot of the socioeconomic gap in elite universities is explained by gaps in academic achievement, that's not the only factor. At least a quarter of the difference is not explained by academic ability, which "suggests that (cost-effective) interventions between the ages of 14 and 18 may play an important role in reducing socioeconomic inequalities in elite university access in the future," according to the study.

In other words, there are low-income kids who could succeed at elite universities who do not enroll in them and there are some steps educators and officials could take to increase enrollment.

The reasons are varied, but a lack of finances is critical. Tuition can be prohibitively expensive. Elite schools often offer scholarships to low-income kids, but the schools have done a bad job of letting poor students know such assistance is available.

Professor Caroline Hoxby from Stanford University and other researchers found in a different study that many simply don't apply to elite schools because of something as seemingly minor as not having the application fee. There are fee waivers but, again, many don't know that.

Schools themselves also do a bad job of identifying high-achieving but low-income kids to target.

But there are efforts to do a better job of reaching low-income kids with the potential to succeed at top schools. College Board, the group that administers the SAT and has access to information about student performance and financial means, has begun sending fee waivers and other application information to targeted students to encourage them to apply.

Why does the lack of socioeconomic diversity matter?

In many cases, the dearth of low-income students also translates to small numbers of minority students since they are more likely to be low-income. For example, of the 2,418 male freshmen entering the University of California at Los Angeles, a top public school, in 2012, just 48 were African American.

Racial diversity at college is a good thing because studies have shown it can enhance creativity and tolerance. It also helps prepare students to enter an increasingly diverse workforce, which brings us to the next point.

The overall lack of diversity at top schools could have serious implications far beyond lecture halls. Top companies often look to educational qualifications when making selections and some are, for better or worse, Ivy League coteries. Whether that's a good thing or not, getting more socioeconomic diversity into those top schools would likely eventually translate into greater boardroom diversity.

The country can't hope to compete in an increasingly diverse global economy unless it can elevate all of its students, not just the wealthy few with built in advantages.

This article is published with permission from Fusion, a TV and digital network that champions a smart, diverse and inclusive America. Fusion is a partner of National Journal and The Next America. Follow the author on Twitter: @Emily_DeRuy