Study urges economic diversity on campus

Poor underrepresented at top colleges, study says

April 07, 2003|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - The most underrepresented group of Americans at the nation's top colleges and universities is not blacks or Hispanics, but students from low-income families, according to a little-noted report released last week.

Only 3 percent of the freshmen at the 146 most selective colleges and universities come from families in the bottom quarter of Americans ranked by income. About 12 percent of the students on these campuses are black or Hispanic.

"There is even less socioeconomic diversity than racial or ethnic diversity at the most selective colleges," said Anthony P. Carnevale, vice president of the Educational Testing Service and a co-author of the study. "There are four times as many African-American and Hispanic students as there are students from the lowest [socioeconomic status] quartile."

The Supreme Court debate over the admissions policies at the University of Michigan put a spotlight again on the fact that blacks and Hispanics are "underrepresented" at the upper reaches of higher education, even after three decades of affirmative action.

Carnevale's study looked at who attends the nation's most selective four-year colleges, as ranked by Barron's Guide to Colleges.

Together, blacks and Hispanics make up 28 percent of the nation's 18-year-olds, but each makes up 6 percent of the entering classes at these schools.

The picture is bleaker for those who come from the lower half of the income spectrum, regardless of their race or ethnic heritage. Only 10 percent of the entering class at these sought-after schools is made up of students from the bottom half of the income scale, Carnevale found.

He is among a small group of reformers who has pressed the idea of "class-based affirmative action." Public opinion surveys show that most people, even if they are skeptical of affirmative action based on race, strongly support giving extra help to students who have overcome disadvantages, he said.

"Opportunity and upward mobility is what America is all about. Americans want strivers to be given a chance," he said. "But we don't like to talk about class anymore. We know from our testing that a lot of kids out there are qualified to go to these schools, but they don't, and the truth is, nobody much gives a damn about it."

The cost is one of the barriers. Federal aid for low-income students has not kept pace with the rising costs of higher education.

Although college officials say they give extra consideration and aid to students from poor families, Carnevale said the national data do not bear out that claim.

"They say they are beating the bushes for low-income kids, but it's not true," he said. If admissions to the top colleges tracked test scores and grades, the percentage of students from families with below-average incomes would rise substantially, he said.

Harvard Law School Professor C. Lani Guinier agreed that the admissions policies of the top colleges are part of "the great inequality machine. There is tremendous bias in favor of wealth," and not just because parents of children from affluent homes can pay the high cost of the best colleges.

In education circles, however, class-based affirmative action is a sensitive subject because of the continuing dispute over "race-conscious" affirmative action.

Even proponents are divided. Some, such as Carnevale, say reaching out to low-income students should be added to the traditional policies that seek out promising racial minority students.

David G. Savage is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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