How to Level the College Playing Field

How to Level the College Playing Field

Housing policies and tax code among powerful forces favoring the privileged in higher education.
The New York Times April 7, 2018 | Harold O. Levy with Peg Tyre

This time of year, there’s a lot of optimism in the air about college. As acceptance notices come in, it seems like the smartest, hardest-working young people with the greatest potential are being matched to institutions of higher learning that will prepare them for success and promote a free and open society. We might conclude that colleges are greasing the gears of social mobility, which have slowed as of late.

It’s painful to think otherwise, especially for someone like me for whom access to a selective college was a boon and a blessing. The son of a hardware store owner, I attended New York City public schools and got both an undergraduate and a law degree from Cornell. With the support of my loving family, I prospered. In 2000, I was appointed chancellor of the New York City public schools; after that I made investments in classroom technology before being tapped to run a foundation that paves the way for high-performing, low-income students to attend college.

Last year, though, the good luck that has characterized my life ran out. My doctor informed me that I am dying of A.L.S. In my remaining days, I feel a great urgency to speak boldly about a troubling fact: Despite the best efforts of many, the gap between the numbers of rich and poor college graduates continues to grow.

It’s true that access programs take some academically talented children from poor and working-poor families to selective colleges, but that pipeline remains frustratingly narrow. And some colleges and universities have adopted aggressive policies to create economic diversity on campus. But others are lagging. Too many academically talented children who come from families where household income hovers at the American median of $59,000 or below are shut out of college or shunted away from selective universities.

There is no easy fix. Creating economically diverse campuses is complicated and costly. Higher education did not cause and will not cure economic inequity. But as colleges struggle to come up with the right formula, the odds against children who come from families earning the median income or less actually graduating from college seem to grow more formidable.

The wealthy spend tens of thousands each year on private school tuition or property taxes to ensure that their children attend schools that provide a rich, deep college preparatory curriculum. On top of that, many of them spend thousands more on application coaches, test-prep tutors and essay editors. They take their children on elaborate college tours so that their children can “find the right fit” at schools with good names and high graduation rates. Enrollment strategists at these same schools seek applicants from areas where the data they buy confirms that income levels and homeownership are high.

The colleges make efforts to open up access to low-income students while at the same time culling applications in ways that give an advantage to the very wealthy — from the persistence of legacy admissions to the back door reserved for young athletes who excel in sports that flourish in rarefied communities like lacrosse, squash, rowing and fencing. Admissions officers don’t talk much about “development” admissions, students whose applications are favored in hopes their parents will eventually endow a new stadium or dorm. Increasing numbers of prospective freshmen apply for early decision, which can give the applicant a stronger chance of getting in but closes doors for middle-income students, who often need to make their college choice by comparing financial aid packages. No wonder, then, that in a group of 38 selective colleges, including five in the Ivy League, more students came from families in the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60 percent.

Creating a true meritocracy in higher education would require serious, politically daring changes to our housing policies and the tax code, neither of which seems likely in the current climate. Yet people of means (and I include myself here) are complicit in a system that seems unable to stop itself from extending privileges to the privileged. If your late-model car boasts the sticker of a prestigious college in the back window, you are participating in a system that may be good for your child but bad for our country.

Because my body is failing, I have enlisted the aid of a colleague, the education journalist Peg Tyre, who has long shared my views. Together, we will lay out some fundamental steps that people of good conscience might take to make sure higher education is aligned with the democratic values we share.

Let’s start with alumni. It is common to harbor fond feelings toward your alma mater. But to be a responsible, forward-looking member of your college’s extended community, look a little deeper. Make it your business to figure out exactly whom your college serves. What is the economic breakdown of the current student body? Some colleges trumpet data about underrepresented minorities and first-generation students. But many don’t. And either way, there are follow-up questions to ask. How has that mix changed over the past 10 years? What policies are in place to increase those numbers? You may not get a direct answer. No matter. When they call you as part of the annual fund-raising drive, press the issue.

But you need to go further. Legacy admission must end. By some counts, children of alumni, almost all of them from the top economic quartile, account for 10 percent to 25 percent of the students at the top 100 universities. In 2011, an analysis of 30 elite schools found that legacy candidates saw a 23 percentage point increase in their chances of getting in compared with otherwise similar candidates. Among the Harvard class of 2021, 29 percent had a parent, grandparent or close family relation who attended the school.

Colleges say they need legacy admissions to encourage donations. But a 2010 study by Chad Coffman, Tara O’Neil and Brian Starr looked at alumni donations at the top 100 universities and found no discernible impact of legacy admission on giving. Leading universities, including M.I.T., Caltech and Berkeley, don’t allot extra credit to legacies. We need to press all schools to do the same. Your child is likely to have a great life even if he or she never sleeps in the same freshman dorm you did.

Next, let’s shorten the college tour. College admissions officers, who opted for the Common Application to make multiple applications to college easier, subsequently tried to weed out the not-so-serious applicants by making a pre-application college visit and a tour weigh in favor of an applicant. They call it “demonstrated interest,” but what it mainly signifies is a family’s ability to pay for a trip and not much more. The college tours, which for wealthy families gobble up vacation time for most of their child’s junior year in high school, are another way to signify the means, not the seriousness, of a candidate. Princeton and Emory, to name two, do not factor demonstrated interest into their admissions decisions. The rest should follow.

Broadly speaking, more people are going to college. To help students who come from the middle and working classes, cities and states should adopt models like the City University of New York’s ASAP program, which provides intensive advising, money for textbooks and even MetroCards to smooth a student’s pathway to his or her degree.

More name-brand colleges could do what Bard College has done: Refine the first two years of their four-year liberal arts education into an accredited Bard associate degree. They work with local partners to offer the degree in “microcolleges” within libraries and community centers. Their first four students — all low-income women with children who never considered applying to elite schools — are graduating from the pilot microcollege, in poverty-stricken Holyoke, Mass., this spring. One has been admitted as a transfer student to both Smith and Mount Holyoke, an almost unimaginable leap. The others are waiting to hear whether they will get to transfer to other selective colleges in the region with enough financial aid and child care to make it a reality.

And please, let’s not act like everyone already has the road map to college plotted. The college application system has become costly and baroque. Middle- and working-class kids rely on high school guidance counselors to help them navigate college admission and financial aid. But according to the latest figures, the average national ratio of high school students to counselors runs as high as 482 to 1. We must make it possible for high schools to hire, train and deploy enough guidance counselors, or we will have proved that we are not taking this issue seriously.

And of course, money talks. The 529 savings programs reward wealthy people for saving for, among other things, colleges, many of which disproportionally favor … wealthy people. President Barack Obama was shot down for trying to do away with it. And the new tax code allows parents to use those funds to pay for private and parochial elementary and secondary school as well. If you are saving money in a 529 to pay for college and live in a state that gives you a tax deduction for it, you might consider making a donation to a college access program for low-income kids. It’s a small gesture, but it can make a big difference to a child in your community and beyond.

This may seem counterintuitive, but please stop giving to your alma mater. Donors to top universities are getting hefty tax deductions to support a system that can seem calculated to ensure that the rich get richer. If you feel you must give, try earmarking your donation for financial aid for low-income, community college students who have applied to transfer to your alma mater.

While visionary leaders are pushing their college and universities to increase the numbers of first-generation college students, comprehensive reforms must come quickly and they must be more visible. Campuses that are overwhelmingly populated by wealthy students amplify the voices that jeer at our higher education system and energize those who seek to destroy it. It would be a tragedy if they succeeded.

Harold O. Levy, a former chancellor of the New York City public schools and education technology investor, is the executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. This article was written with Peg Tyre, the author of “The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve.”

The New York Times