Guess which major news magazine had this cover headline last week: “Time to Scrap Affirmative Action.” (Note there is no question mark.) In past years, one might have thought it was National Review or The Weekly Standard. Not this time. The story belongs to that well known “right-wing publication,” The Economist.
The Economist’s article discusses a case before the U.S. Supreme Court on the alleged use of racial preferences at the University of Texas at Austin claimed by a white undergraduate who was denied admission. Not only does the magazine have little sympathy for UT, citing the growing number of minority students at colleges around the country and in higher-paying jobs in the workforce, but it also criticizes similar programs in other countries around the world.
But while American institutions of higher education (along with the country overall) have become more racially diverse, economic diversity remains a huge issue on the campuses of elite colleges in particular. Democratic and Republican policymakers alike have cited social mobility as one of the defining domestic issues facing our country, and how in recent years the rigidities of class, particularly for low-income citizens, have become more difficult to overcome.
Yet for many elite colleges, public and private, the response has been something of a shrug. (All the more alarming is gaining a degree is increasingly important for lower-income students if they hope to escape poverty). This is not a new issue. Online articles dating back to 2000 cite the stubbornly low number of Pell grant students at elite colleges. Pell grants are the main government grant program targeted to students based on income. A recent National Bureau of Economic Research report by Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby finds that many Pell grant-eligible students qualify to attend the best colleges but do not.
I looked online to find the enrollments of Pell students at major colleges to see if there has been progress in the last few years. I found that it’s not easy to find these numbers. Data on racial diversity is accessible, for example, on the U.S. News college rankings site (once you pay for your subscription); not so with percentages of Pell students, where I resorted to searching the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) for Pell enrollments at specific colleges. (I would guess most students and parents have never heard of IPEDS, the primary federal data source on colleges and universities.) To its credit, U.S. News does offer some data on economic diversity for a limited number of schools, but it’s not comprehensive.
Anecdotally, I did find that percentages of Pell students at many elite schools have increased modestly in recent years. But to what is this attributable? Specific policies and new programs introduced by colleges to address this challenge? If so, colleges are not promoting these plans on their websites or through other marketing. It might also be attributable to the growth of “no loan” policies at some elite schools with high endowments (many of which are now being scaled back) or the fact that until Congress made changes to slow the growth in the Pell program a couple years ago, one in two students nationally received some Pell funding as the program grew dramatically after 2009.
Whatever is going on here, more attention needs to be focused on the issue of economic diversity and how to boost the number of qualified students, from the bottom rungs of the income ladder, attending our best colleges.
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