What can we do to help more disadvantaged students attend and succeed in college? This has been a question behind many education policy reforms of the last half century. This is why we have affirmative action in admissions. This is why we have community colleges, the work-study program, and federally-backed student loans and grants. This is even, arguably, why we have online and for-profit colleges.

But, according to a new piece from the New America Foundation, we’re doing it wrong. Affirmative action isn’t working; we need to focus on first-generation college students instead. As Tomiko Brown-Nagin puts it:

Decades-long commitments to “diversity” are important, but they’re poor substitutes for a policy of equal access for the disadvantaged because “diverse” students and disadvantaged students aren’t necessarily one and the same. Several studies have shown that beneficiaries of diversity-based admissions policies typically hail from the most well-educated and economically successful segments of “diverse” communities. That’s why a diversity strategy will not help universities reclaim their mission of fostering socio-economic mobility.

The 250 or so oversubscribed institutions that admit a fraction of thousands of applicants too often crowd out the smart but poorer students. High-ability students born to poor, uneducated parents have the most to gain from higher education and the most to lose as a result of current inequities. We need to remove some of the roadblocks in the present system, especially at selective institutions of higher learning.

This sounds nice, but it’s mostly wrong.

The reality is that selective institutions of higher learning have had historically only a mild interest in “fostering socio-economic mobility.” Really the best way to fill a selective college is with a lot of affluent, high achieving children of professionals, a large component of rich kids, and a few really smart poor students. It’s best if some of these kids are also “diverse,” too.


The diversity component that is such a feature of discussion in higher education isn’t really about helping the historically disadvantaged; it’s about getting a few really talented ethnic minorities studying on campus. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s never going to address past discrimination of entire races, nor is it supposed to.

If, however, our goal is actually to make sure that talented, hard-working, smart people from historically disadvantaged backgrounds (particularly the poor) attend and graduate from college, we should really just ignore the 250 or so oversubscribed institutions altogether.

The reality is that most American colleges, the other 95 percent, don’t have much of a selection process at all. They have to attract people to apply. And America’s first generation college students don’t have trouble getting to college. This is despite the fact that, as Brown-Nagin explains “many universities… practice ‘need-sensitive’ admissions and don’t accept academically able but poor students.” But it doesn’t really matter. American colleges, community colleges, state colleges, even many smaller religious institutions are full of first generation students.

The problem isn’t admissions; it’s that they don’t graduate. For low-income students who get into colleges, as Tomiko Brown-Nagin explained, fewer than half graduate,

But this isn’t because of the admissions and financial aid policies of a few selective schools. It’s just that the colleges that 75 percent or so of Americans attend, public colleges (historically the route to the middle class for many people from working-class backgrounds), have gotten too expensive to afford without loans. Public college prices have increased 71 percent in the last decade alone. And that’s why first-generation students drop out: because they can’t afford to finish college.

This is the real problem to fix. The real way to ensure that more disadvantaged students graduate from college doesn’t have anything to do with the fanciest colleges and their “need sensitive” admissions.

The rest of our colleges are totally need blind. They’re mostly everything blind, because they let almost everyone in. The problem is they don’t “meet need.” Their cost is too high for working people.

Selective colleges will never have much impact on “fostering socio-economic mobility” for society as a whole. Focusing on such schools is a distraction. [Image via]

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer