After 32 Years, Colleges Are Still Leaving Behind One Crucial Group of Students

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The news: College tuition has reached record highs and schools are raking in more money than ever before. But America's elite universities still can't solve one simple dilemma: How to enroll low-income students.

The New York Times reports that despite "promises to admit more poor students," the nation's "selective colleges" have maintained the exact same percentage of "less well off" students for 32 years, from 1980 to 2012.

Clearly there's no shortage of roadblocks when it comes to the elusive American Dream.

Source: AP
Source: AP

Background: Though plenty of low-income high school seniors earn competitive grades, there are still twice as many of them in the general population as can be found enrolled at elite universities, according to the Times.

The insidious results are manifold. Not only do top colleges remain "a powerful force for reinforcing advantage and passing it on through generations," as Georgetown University's Anthony P. Carnevale explains to the Times, these colleges also ensure that an important guarantor of socioeconomic progress stays out of reach.

Simply put, these schools are the same "bastions of privilege" today as they were in the Reagan era. But more importantly, by maintaining an already staggering degree of nationwide inequality, universities designed to educate and enlighten the next generation actually serve to hinder its social mobility and prevent a much needed diversification of perspectives at top corporations, organizations and the government.

Why this is happening: With backlash against race-based affirmative action growing increasingly hostile, colleges are transitioning to a system that relies more heavily on economic factors in order to maintain some semblance of equality in the admissions process, according to the Times.

Source: AP
Source: AP

But even this strategy appears not to be working: In all but a few cases – including Harvard, Vassar and Amherst – low-income enrollment has stayed flat because elite schools "are too worried about harming their finances and rankings."

"A lot of it is just about money, because each additional low-income student you enroll costs you a lot in financial aid," Michael N. Bastedo, director of the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan, tells the Times.

Dr. Carnevale adds: "College presidents are under constant pressure to meet budgets, improve graduation rates and move up in the rankings. The easiest way to do it is to climb upstream economically — get students whose parents can pay more."

Source: AP
Source: AP

In other words: You can't build the fancy athletic complexes and dining halls and bid for the top professors that bolster your U.S. News and World Report ranking while staying committed to low-income scholars.

This despite schools like Harvard, Princeton and Yale possessing endowments so huge they could make tuition free for all their students, according to Vox.

Not to mention recruitment is a challenge. Critics claim low-income students are isolated from the spaces and social networks where people have attended top schools, so they're discouraged from even applying. As a result, many arrive at these universities via educational nonprofits like QuestBridge, which are "devoted to identifying hidden prospects, working with them in high school and connecting them to top colleges," according to the Times.

Perception and limited access also spell difficulty differentiating between schools with high sticker prices and quality scholarship programs, and schools with just high sticker prices: The Times reports Harvard and New York University both boast daunting fees, but families that made under $48,000 paid on average $4,000 in 2011-12 at Harvard, versus a whopping $27,000 at NYU.

Bottom line: Amid rising costs and scattered priorities, most of America's top colleges still haven't lived up to their rhetorical promises of inclusiveness. If you were a low-income student in any of the past three decades, this certainly won't surprise you -- but the inequality it perpetuates should galvanize all Americans.