Needy Students Need Action, Not Reports, to Increase College Attainment

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, “the largest scholarship foundation in the United States,” with an endowment of $700M, has recently published two documents relevant to college admission. The first is titled True Merit: Ensuring Our Brightest Students Have Access to Our Best Colleges and Universities. The second is Opening College Doors To Equal Educational Opportunity: Removing Barriers That Keep Most High-Achieving Students From Low-Income Families Out of Top Colleges and Universities. Although the titles hint at new perspectives or even new ways of dealing with the issue of college access for underserved students, their contents are mostly very old wine in new bottles. Supporting the recruitment and enrollment of bright but often-overlooked students is a noble enterprise, but new ideas and substantial financial support are what’s needed. Surely, such a well-endowed foundation can do better than produce reports years, if not decades, behind the times.


iu-2The True Merit report reviews research by Caroline Hoxby and others, listing conditions that face underserved students in college admission as if the Foundation has just discovered them but which have been of concern to colleges and universities for some time. After citing well-known research about the low proportion of poor students in competitive colleges, the report states:

Underrepresentation of high-achieving, low-income students at the nation’s selective colleges stems from two factors: 1) low- income students are less likely to apply to selective schools, and 2) low-income students who do apply receive inadequate consideration in the admissions and financial aid process.

The report lists some of the well-known problems underserved students face with college admission: Lack of advanced educational opportunities; inability to demonstrate interest by visiting campus due to financial strictures; merit aid to students who can pay full tuition; and not having a “hook” such as athletic ability or legacy status. (There are many more issues involved, but the report focuses on these.) If colleges were to eliminate these problems, the report says, talented low-income students would have more access to college and would in fact do as well or better than, for example, “mediocre but full-paying students.”

iu-3But not every full-pay student is “mediocre,” just as not every low-income student is an overlooked genius, so characterizing the issue as a zero-sum game doesn’t make sense, since it simply pits one class against another. And defining “true merit” is as difficult today as it’s ever been, especially in the larger context of American political and economic culture. Concluding this section, the report draws on the American myth of meritocracy in a paean to democratic ideals:

Why, in a country where we fought a war of independence to get away from inherited aristocracy, do so many of our leading universities employ preferences based on lineage? The very existence of the preference allows donors to buy their children’s way into selective schools. It is as though competitive academic placement applies only to the poor, while admissions among the wealthy is open to the highest bidder.

This rather embarrassing stab at oratorical flamboyance only makes the rest of the report look that much more impotent. It concludes, unjustifiably, that colleges and universities have not wrestled with these issues and don’t do so even now. The report refers to excellent studies documenting the problems, yet offers nothing original, new, insightful, or actionable about how to create a more equitable environment for students of every economic stratum.

True Merit‘s recommendations about what to do simply prove the point. They include

• removing preferences for the wealthy,

• broadening merit definitions and assessment processes to better identify high-achieving students from varied socioeconomic backgrounds,

• expanding outreach strategies, and

• increasing financial aid.

100_5362.jpgI can attest that as an admission officer at Amherst College in the 90s, we worked to have more students on financial aid each year. We constantly expanded our outreach, looked beyond the numbers for students of unusual backgrounds, and resisted, even turned down, legacy admits if there were no other compelling factors involved. I know that other institutions were doing the same thing, and I know they are doing them with even more energy and resources now. (Amherst just this year received a $1 million award from the Cooke Foundation for its work recruiting and enrolling underserved students, in fact.)

Opening College Doors, which the Foundation describes as a summary of the preliminary findings of a larger study it is currently conducting, does little to advance the ideas promoted in the earlier study. Like True Merit, it presents truisms and shopworn suggestions instead of original or genuinely challenging possibilities that might help institutions put these good ideas into practice.

This Cooke Foundation Issue Brief looks at some preliminary findings of our new study, and makes six recommendations to shrink the huge educational opportunity gap between the economic haves and have-nots. The full report, which will provide greater detail, will be issued later this year.

Our six recommendations to selective colleges and universities are:

  1. Make clear the true cost of college attendance after financial aid.
  2. Encourage more low-income students to apply.
  3. Make the college application process simpler.
  4. Practice need-blind admissions.
  5. Remove other poverty penalties in the admission process.
  6. Recognize the barriers low-income students have overcome.

Anyone who has spent any time at all in college admission on any side of the desk knows that these issues have been addressed, discussed, analyzed, and dissected hundreds, even thousands of times at conferences, regional meetings, and within institutions themselves. Even the term “need-blind admissions” is a misnomer for most admission professionals, existing more as an ideal than a reality.

Expanding on recommendation six, the Foundation suggests that college admission offices

Take note of a student’s background. Many things can provide clues as to whether a student grew up with limited means. These include the parents’ level of education, the parents’ occupations, whether they are racial or ethnic minorities, languages spoken at home, the number of siblings, the quality of the student’s high school, the high school’s catchment area and the student’s ZIP code.

Review applications holistically and use the above-mentioned information about a student’s background during the review. Research shows that having more complete information on a student’s background increases acceptance rates of low-income students.

I don’t know any institutions at any selectivity level that don’t do these things at some point in the admission process unless they’re huge state universities that simply can’t read each application. Even so, there are imperatives they try to fulfill. It’s hard to understand how the Foundation can think it’s contributing anything new to the conversation when it seems more like Rip van Winkle, suddenly awakening to a world that has passed them by.

iu-1There’s also a profound cognitive dissonance here that belies the reports’ democratizing rhetoric. Instead of spending its money helping many students, the Foundation helps only an exclusive number chosen through a very rigorous selection process, creating its own aristocracy. One might say it’s better to fully (and luxuriously) fund 125 talented but needy students than to partially fund 500 or 1,000 or even all 3,300 scholarship applicants each year. Perhaps you’d be right. But the Cooke Foundation’s earnings on its $700M endowment must surely be enough to take on more students. It might even make more sense to look for systemic approaches to the problems instead of focusing on the narrower and easier route of betting on a tiny group of sure winners.

(During a job interview with Cooke many years ago, I asked about their scholarship policy. I wondered if they had any plans to widen the scope of their awards to encompass more students. “No,” was the answer. It would not have been a good fit for me.)

The Cooke Foundation has taken a “micro-” stance in its support of college access. That is, it chooses a select number of bright but underserved students to attend a select number of highly selective institutions. Perhaps, given its resources, it might have a greater impact by adopting a “macro-access” position instead, enabling it to support student access more systemically. Rather than producing reports that do little to advance the cause of needy students in gaining admission to college, perhaps the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation could put its money to better use by trying the following:

  1. Establish a national scholarship fund available to colleges lacking robust endowments to be used to recruit and support poorer students. Many colleges would enroll more high-need students if they could, but simply lack the financial wherewithal. They would be able to supplement their own FA funds with funds from Cooke (and perhaps other foundations).
  2. Finance the ongoing creation, distribution, and follow-through of Caroline Hoxby’s college information packet. She discovered that a simple set of communications costing around $6.00 per student significantly raised the likelihood of high school freshmen’s becoming interested in attending college.
  3. Consider expanding Cooke’s own scholarship granting process to encompass a larger number of  deserving students instead of just a few of the very luckiest. With 3,300 applicants per year, surely more than 125 can be accommodated. A luxury lifeboat is wonderful for those lucky enough to be saved, but that still leaves others in leaky skiffs or floating in the dark waters trying to grab onto wreckage. Who “merits” saving in this scenario?
  4. Fund, conduct, and produce truly original research about the college admission process, such as its effect on students and high schools; its role in status construction; its place in American culture and society; and its role as a bridge between secondary and post-secondary education. A great deal needs to be said about this phenomenon in ways that will help everyone involved in getting students to college. As an outside agency, Cooke might be just the organization to provide clear and actionable observations that would truly make college more accessible for all.
  5. Initiate and work with colleges and universities to develop a common financial aid document that would present financial aid information clearly and uniformly. This document is urgently needed and would fulfill one of the Foundation’s own recommendations. Institutions have spoken about it, but no one seems willing to take the first step. Perhaps only a disinterested outside agency can make it happen.

Unquestionably, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation has generously supported students and organizations concerned with college attainment since 2000. But its efforts have been narrowly instead of systemically focused. It would be spectacular to see it put some of its incredible resources to work truly addressing some of the issues that have long made American college admission a tangle of competing interests and a chokepoint working against the broader inclusion of talented individuals in the American economy.


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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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6 Responses to Needy Students Need Action, Not Reports, to Increase College Attainment

  1. Jamie Wallace says:

    There are so many resources for the academically talented. Those kids have worked hard and they deserve help. However, there are teeming multitudes of talented B students who could thrive and flourish in college. They could also use help going to college. Far too many of them make the choice to save money with community college, but without guidance and specific goals they do not get into the transfer track. These students deserve help as much as the more academically talented kids. I applaud your call for Cooke and other benefactors to broaden their criteria.


  2. Matt Collins says:

    Will - have you listened to Malcolm Gladwell’s recent podcasts on efforts to recruit more under-privileged students to elite colleges? He takes down Bowdoin for its spending on fine dining but relatively paltry admission of those with Pell Grants, and he heaps praise on Vasser for doing the opposite. He also notes how many deserving under-privileged students there are. They just need discovering and assistance much earlier. Waiting for them to hit high school often is too late. I’d love to hear what you think of Gladwell’s take.


    • Will Dix says:

      Hi Matt- Yes, I heard the podcast as well as the other two he did on education, which are much better, especially the one about the $100M donation. The Bowdoin one seemed unnecessarily unbalanced to me, although I know he as trying to make a point. The problem overall is that asking colleges like it to cram more underserved students into their classes doesn’t really help the big picture; it just creates more problems for the pressured colleges. It’s the micro- vs macro-access issue that I’ve been writing about.

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