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Race and Beyond: Why Economic Disadvantage Becomes Educational Disadvantage

University of Washington

SOURCE: AP/Elaine Thompson

University of Washington students walk on the campus between classes.

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“Why are academically gifted students from poor families less likely to attend top-ranked colleges and universities than equally smart kids from wealthy families?”

Alexandria Walton Radford, who directs research on students’ transitions to college and postsecondary education for the Washington, D.C.-based firm RTI International, recently posed this question to me as we talked over steaming cups of java downtown.

I didn’t have an answer, but Radford did. In fact, she’s studied the question and offers insights in her recently published book, Top Student, Top School? How Social Class Shapes Where Valedictorians Go to College. In the book, she analyzes the High School Valedictorian Project, a national study of top-achieving students that sought to pinpoint when, how, and why highly accomplished public school students choose to apply and enroll in their respective colleges. The findings were discouraging, including:

  • Only 3 percent of students at the 146 most-selective public and private colleges in America are from the bottom socioeconomic quartile.
  • Just 10 percent of students attending one of U.S. News & World Report’s top 30 public and private universities are from families with incomes less than $30,000.
  • Sixty-seven percent of incoming freshmen at the country’s top 193 most-selective colleges come from the top income quartile. Twelve percent come from the second quartile and only 15 percent come from the bottom two quartiles.
  • At the prestigious public University of Michigan, more freshmen come from families with an annual income of $200,000 or more than from families with an annual income below the national median of $53,000.

To be clear, those figures speak to the overall picture. The students that Radford studied were all highly qualified and, without regard to family incomes or other class markers, were the valedictorians in their respective high schools. Yet the overwhelming majority of poorer students chose not to even apply to the nation’s more challenging and prestigious universities.

“Although some might believe that those enrollment patterns are the result of more-affluent students being better academically prepared, preparation differences by social class are unable to fully account for this phenomenon,” Radford writes.

So what’s the difference? During our conversation, she explained that students from lower socioeconomic families encounter a virtual wall of resistance that blocks them from even applying to colleges where they’re capable of attending and succeeding.

“At the top of the list is the presumption that they can’t afford it,” Radford said, adding that many of the top schools have need-blind admissions and offer financial assistance that would cover nearly all the costs for the neediest students. “But they don’t know this because nobody has made it clear how college admissions work.”

As it stands, bright but poor high school students are left to figure out the maze of college applications and financial aid forms on their own. Unfortunately, that opens the door for those with more information and access—children of affluent and college-educated families—to have a tremendous advantage even before any of them set foot on a campus.

Typically, low-income students live in low-income school districts where nobody has attended highly selective colleges. In all too many cases, school administrators and guidance counselors don’t know the rules, procedures, and financial aid regulations well enough to encourage top-performing students to apply.

“For the most part, these students will attend a local college or a technical school near their homes, if they attend at all, because it’s all they know or have been told about,” Radford told me.

This doesn’t have to be the case. Radford believes colleges should do a better job of making it clear to prospective students—especially those in isolated and impoverished communities—that a place is available to them if they have studied and prepared to grab it. As Radford writes in a recent article for The Atlantic:

Ensuring that students and their families have access to the tools they need to be informed college consumers can help fix this problem. The availability of need-based financial aid for families across the socioeconomic spectrum, including middle- and even upper-middle-class families, must be better publicized. Furthermore, families should assess a college’s affordability based on its net price—the price paid after financial aid—rather than its sticker price, and the net price calculators now required on colleges’ websites can help them do so. Also, in weighing a college’s overall value families should look beyond cost and consider graduation and employment outcomes as well. … In addition, public schools should replace one-size-fits-all college counseling with quality, tailored advice based on students’ academic preparation. Finally, colleges should improve their outreach to less affluent students so that these students become familiar with—and feel more comfortable applying to—colleges that match their achievements.

Radford’s work and warning demands attention because our workforce increasingly depends upon a highly educated and skilled population. On the ladder toward success in employment, social contacts, and life opportunities, the contacts made and fostered on college campuses become more vital. College selection is a first, giant step toward leveling the playing field.

Yet our existing system that steers poor kids to lesser schools and rich kids to prestigious universities makes it easier for the disadvantages—and advantages—of the past to carry on to successive generations. As much as we don’t like to believe it, America’s stark class stratification begins at the schoolhouse door. It must not be allowed to matriculate further into the nation’s colleges and universities.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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This is part of a regular column: Race and Beyond

For more from the same column, click here