Association of American Universities (AAU) Fall Meeting

October 10, 2005

Association of American Universities (AAU) Fall Meeting

"Equity in Higher Education: The Unfinished Agenda"

By Amy Gutmann

For a long time, many outstanding colleges and universities were lost when it came to the matter of equity in student admissions and enrollment. Most of us are old enough to remember the time when bastions of higher education did not welcome women, public school graduates, Jews, children of immigrants, African Americans and Latinos.

For decades now, higher education has changed course for our own betterment and that of society. Most colleges and universities have discovered the inextricable link between diversity, equity and academic excellence.

We value diversity not because it is an end in itself, but rather because diversity is a means to three important ends of higher education: first, equalizing opportunity; second, educating leaders for all sectors of society; and third, enriching the educational experience of all students since we learn more from people whose life experiences differ from our own than we do from people just like ourselves.

Socioeconomic diversity is key to achieving all three of these ends that diversity at its best can serve. Without socioeconomic diversity, colleges and universities cannot serve as engines of equal opportunity. Without socioeconomic diversity, we cannot educate leaders for all sectors of society. And we offer an impoverished educational climate on campus to the extent that our student bodies are overwhelmingly affluent.

A lopsided share of the students enrolled at our most highly selective universities come from the wealthiest segment of society.

Most of the commentary on the subject of socioeconomic equity of late has focused primarily on the widening gap between low-income students and high-income students. If we are truly committed to achieving the goals of diversity and equal opportunity in higher education, we must expand our field of vision to include children from middle-income families. Many of these families are not (by U.S. standards) low-income.

They earn between approximately $41,000 and $94,000 a year, but they cannot afford the sticker price of most of our universities and are also strikingly underrepresented on our campuses.

To be truly equitable in our enrollment, we will need to focus far more than we have to date on middle-income as well as low-income students. Let me start by profiling these students with numbers and narratives.

The data I will be discussing are drawn from a 2003 survey of highly selective colleges and universities and other calculations [1].

When I speak of low-income students, I refer -- as do most analysts of college enrollment -- to the first two quintiles of income distribution, which go up to $41,000. They account for 1.4 million 12th graders but only 900,000 high school graduates.

When I refer to the middle income, I refer to the third and fourth quintiles, which cover family incomes between $41,000 and $94,000. They account for 1.6 million 12th graders and 1.4 million high school graduates --- over 50% more than the first two quintiles. (The third quintile includes many blue-collar families.)

I refer to the fifth quintile as high-income. They account for 600,000 high school graduates. Moving from the lowest to the highest income quintile, we notice a striking correlation between family income levels and scholastic achievement in high school. The percentage of those scoring 1200 or better on their SATs increases across each quintile. (Only 4.5% and 10% of students from the lower two quintiles hit that mark respectively, compared with 21% and 42% from the fourth and fifth income quintiles.)

In analyzing enrollment rates for highly qualified students, I am using a far broader definition of academic performance that encompasses grades, class rank, SATs, ACTs, the NELS aptitude test, and courses taken. Again, moving across each quintile, there also is a striking correlation between family income and academic achievement.

So let's look at the top quintile ? the high-income group. Although this group amounts to 20% of the American population, 57% of the students enrolled at highly selective institutions come from this income quintile. But only 36% of all very highly qualified students come from the same group. Thus, the most affluent segment of the population is overrepresented in enrollment by a margin of 21%.

This overrepresentation squeezes out students from all of the lower four income quintiles. The first two quintiles are populated by 7.5% and 11% of all highly-qualified high school graduates. The enrollment differential is disturbing but rather small --- 0.6% for the first quintile, and 3.8% for the second.

When we consider these data, what is far more disturbing than the under-representation margin of this group is the small proportion of qualified students. I will come back to how we can work to improve on those terribly troubling statistics.

Let's focus now on the third and fourth quintiles. While 20.3% of the highly qualified high school graduates come from the third income quintile, only 11.9% of them are enrolled in our group of highly selective institutions. They are underrepresented by 8.4% (more than twice the under-representation margin of the second quintile). Strikingly, students in the fourth quintile are squeezed by exactly the same 8.4% margin (In this case, a 25.5% pool; a 17.1% enrollment figure.) In sum, middle-income students are the most underrepresented at our nation's selective universities.

The narratives that can be attached to these data reveal the qualitative loss of diversity on our campuses. The students I know at Penn whose peers are underrepresented include:

-A gifted writer who's the daughter of a New Hampshire auto mechanic and the first in her family to attend college;

-The son of a truck driver from Texas who's become a standout at the Wharton School and a campus leader; and,

-The son of grocery store clerk who wants to pursue both a doctorate in philosophy and a law degree.

These are the sons and daughters of a middle-income America. Excellence as well as equity demand that we not let them fall on the losing side of an arbitrary line dividing those deemed deserving of preferences from those who are not.

The difference between students from first-generation and second-generation college families, or between students from blue-collar and white-collar families, for example, is likely to be more relevant to promoting equal opportunity and enriching the educational climate on our campus than the difference between students in adjacent income brackets. That is because parental education and occupation are better indicators than income alone of the educational obstacles that qualified students have overcome and the contributions they can make toward enriching the educational climate on campus.

Simply put, when we think about promoting socioeconomic equity in enrollment, we need to vigorously devote our efforts to students across all of the first four income quintiles. We should not allow ourselves to be pressured into a zero-sum game of favoring one underrepresented low or middle-income group over another. So what can we do?

Let me begin with our most economically disadvantaged students. The primary problem is not the absence of full financial support for academically qualified low-income students -- although that is a serious problem for the many institutions that lack the resources to provide full financial aid for every qualified student. Rather, the primary problem is that there are too few low-income students in the pipeline. And that is a reflection on our failing elementary and secondary schools.

We cannot count on government alone to solve this problem. To bring more low-income students into the pipeline of highly qualified students, universities should step up and work harder to improve the public schools in their communities. Penn partnered with the Philadelphia School District to create a University-assisted neighborhood public school for kindergarten through 8th grade. The student body is 77% minority, with African Americans accounting for 58%. Many students come from low-income households.

The children at Penn-Alexander are flourishing socially and academically. Seventy-two percent of last spring's graduating eighth graders are now enrolled in magnet high schools in Philadelphia, making their chances of getting accepted to selective colleges or universities much better than would have earlier been the case. Now we are working with the School District to create a magnet high school with an international focus.

If all universities with schools of education deploy their expertise and resources toward improving public schools in their neighborhoods, the results would add up. One excellent public school here, another there, and pretty soon, you're talking about some real systemic change in public education that yields more college-bound graduates.

What else can we do? We can begin by recognizing the cultural and economic barriers to entry into selective universities for middle- income as well as low-income studentsO and then work to lower them.

When visiting magnet public high schools in major cities, I hear that many talented low- and middle-income students don't think they would be welcome on our campuses. So they don't bother to apply. We need to send these students stronger and clearer signals that we want them here, and then make sure they feel welcome on our campus.

Then there are the economic barriers. "I would love to come, but my parents can't afford it." Too many qualified middle-income students and their families take one look at our tuition and turn away without inquiring further. We must more effectively get them the message that if they're admitted, we will make it affordable to come here.

Making college truly accessible to middle-income as well as low-income students is the most daunting challenge facing all of us today, since far more middle-income students are well qualified for admission. For most colleges and universities to pursue these goals and also balance our budgets, fundraising for need-based financial aid must not just join a long list of fundraising priorities; in most cases, it must become one of the very highest priorities.

At the same time, we all would be in much better shape if the federal government invested more heavily in making financial aid more available to middle-income and low-income students alike. When it comes to having selective colleges and universities punch students' tickets to a brighter future, we are under-serving the majority of the population in the United States. As a matter of both equity and intelligent politics, we must resolve explicitly to make the future of students from all four under-represented quintiles our cause. Justice will be served only when we aim to enroll more students from middle-income and low-income families.

I hope to have made the case for including this project as an important part of our unfinished agenda for equity in higher education.


[1] Sources: College Board survey of College-Bound Seniors (2003) and calculations based on National Education Longitudinal Survey and Berkner and Chavez, "Access to Postsecondary Education for 1992 High School Graduates" (U.S. Department of Education), NCES 98-105, October 1997.