That was then, this is now. Today, the current president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, has essentially repudiated Bok’s position and devised an innovative program to reach out to, admit, and pay the tuitions of qualified, low-income students. Summers calls the growing divide between the children of the rich and the children of the poor the most serious domestic problem in the United States today. Bowen, the president of the Mellon Foundation, has followed suit, teaming up with colleagues Martin Kurzweil and Eugene Tobin to write a book advocating preferential treatment of poor applicants. Despite its uninspired title, Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education provides a fascinating look into how the admissions process at selective universities helps certain groups and not others. Mellon assembled a new data set of 180,000 students who applied to be in the 1995 freshman class at 19 selective colleges (five IviesHarvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania; 10 private liberal arts colleges; and four top public universities).

While the under-representation of low-income students should come as no surprise, the details the authors amass to depict its extent can be shocking. Only 11 percent of students at the top-tier universities come from families in the bottom income quartile (compared with 50 percent from the top income quartile). Only 3 percent of students are both from the bottom income quartile and the first generation to attend college. These numbers track roughly with Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose’s research for The Century Foundation which found that at the most selective 146 colleges, 3 percent of students come from the bottom socio-economic quartile and 74 percent from the richest.

The book essentially shreds the assertions of selective colleges that they have long provided a leg up in admissions to hard-working low-income students. For example, in defending the University of Michigan’s affirmative-action policy in the Supreme Court, eight selective universities (including four of the five Ivy League colleges in Bowen, Kurzweil, and Tobin’s study) claimed to give significant favorable consideration to students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds. In fact, the study found that, at the 19 universities surveyed, a significant edge is given to recruited athletes, legacies, and underrepresented minorities, but not to low-income students. Within a given SAT range, being a recruited athlete increases the chance of admissions by 30 percentage points (that is, for example, from a 20 percent chance to a 50 percent chance). Being an underrepresented minority boosts one’s chance of admission by 28 percentage points and being a legacy by 20 percentage points. By contrast, poor kids receive essentially no break in the admissions process; they fare neither better nor worse than other applicants. Whereas a college that was race-blind in admissions would be considered reactionary today, selective universities are absolutely blind to need, raising the question, the authors say, of whether being need-blind is good enough.

Given the stark portrait of a university system seemingly uninterested in the ideal of social mobility, Bowen’s suggestion that selective universities assign low-income students a preference in admissions akin to a legacy boost seems rather modest. Doing so would raise the percentage of students from low-income families from 11 percent to 17 percent without compromising academic quality. But why stop at the 20-percent legacy preference? Why don’t the poor deserve the boost given to minorities or athletes? The authors don’t provide a very convincing argument. The idea of a ‘legacy thumb’ appeals to us in part because there is a nice kind of symbolic symmetry associated with it, they say, in which a deserved preference for those who have overcome obstacles balances out an undeserved preference for the wealthy. For all the appeal of symmetry, Bowen’s proposal in this regard is unpersuasive. If anything, an honest attempt to make universities a more effective engine of class mobility would require giving the poor a significantly greater edge than the privileged.

Indeed, the authors’ defense of legacy admissions indicates an irksome conservatism. One can be sympathetic to university administrators’ pragmatic need to raise funds from alumni who expect a spot waiting for junior. But maintaining a sense of historical continuity, as Bowen calls it, is hardly as compelling an interest as a more meritocratic campus and society.

Bowen doesn’t defend every existing admissions preference, though. While legacy and minority admission preferences should be retained, he argues, athletic preferences could be curtailed without harm. Without debating the benefit a winning football team offers a campus community, it seems noteworthy that Bowen wishes to preserve those advantages based on the immutable factors of race and parentage, while dismissing those based on hard work and talent, even if those advantages aren’t expressed in the classroom.

Still, Bowen’s willingness to go to bat for low-income students is admirable, and he doesn’t paper over the obstacles. Bowen and his colleagues recognize that moving toward a system of affirmative action for low-income students will be tough sledding. Politically, there are strong, organized constituency groups for minority applicants, recruited athletes, and legacies, and no comparable champions for the poor. And the program will require a 12 percent increase in grant aid. Ultimately, the authors argue, the federal government will need to step in with changes to the financial aid system to help colleges and universities lacking Harvard’s endowment to afford efforts to promote economic diversity.

Using the affirmative action model to make it easier for some students to get into elite schools (necessarily making it harder for others) will bother many. And in a perfect world, no school would need to. West Point has come up with a way to boost the aptitude, not merely the admissions scores, of promising disadvantaged youths who might otherwise not measure up to its standards. Students who may have hidden potential are given the option of spending a year at the United States Military Academy Prep School, where a rigorous program gives students the time and training to get their academic skills up to snuff, giving West Point a more diverse student body without lowering its standards. A similar program for elite colleges could be a long way off; and until then, preference systems provide the best chance at offering poor kids a shot at top campuses. And if we’re fated to make do with affirmative action for legacies and football players, offering a boost to the poor certainly would be the least likely to inspire a political backlash.

Public opinion polls have shown that Americans support the idea of providing a leg up to hard-working, financially disadvantaged students who have beaten the odds. Most of higher education has given lip service to this idea. To his credit, Bowen reexamined his earlier position, ran the numbers, and came out believing that the existing levels of economic stratification must not be allowed to persist. While some of us might like to go further and faster than Bowen, his new call, coming from the heart of the higher education establishment, suggests a very significant development: Belatedly, the elites are catching up to where the public has been for a long time.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is author of The Remedy: Class, Race and Affirmative Action (1996) and the editor of America’s Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education (2004). He is currently working on a biography of Albert Shanker.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is author of The Remedy: Class, Race and Affirmative Action (1996) and the editor of America’s Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education (2004). He is currently working on a biography of Albert Shanker.

Richard D. Kahlenberg

Richard D. Kahlenberg is an education and housing policy consultant. He is the author or editor of 17 books, including The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action, and Broken Contract: A Memoir of Harvard Law School.