Education ought to be the great equalizer in American society. Yet the rules often are stacked against bright children from lower-income families.
In ground-breaking stories published last year, The News & Observer and Charlotte Observer showed that bright school children from low-income families who score well on end-of-grade tests are often excluded from advanced classes that can be a pathway to college.
Now there's mounting evidence that students from these backgrounds face barriers that keep them out of the best colleges. Some of these barriers are in the admissions process.
"America's colleges are, in short, more unequal today than at any time in the last four decades," Duke economist Charles Clotfelter wrote recently in The N&O. "At the top are very rich colleges of undeniable excellence. While they are more ethnically diverse than ever, these colleges are also enrolling a disproportionate share of the nation's affluent families." Clotfelter is the author of the 2017 book "Unequal Colleges in the Age of Disparity."
Harold O. Levy, former chancellor of the New York City Public Schools, has reached the same conclusion. Levy reports that in a group of 38 selective colleges, more students came from families in the top 1 percent of income level than the entire bottom 60 percent.
"Too many academically talented children who come from families where household income hovers at the American median of $59,000 or below are shut out of college or shunted away from selective universities," Levy and journalist Peg Tyre wrote recently.
Many colleges have worked hard to admit and graduate students from disadvantaged backgrounds. UNC-Chapel Hill's Carolina Covenant, in which low-income students can graduate debt-free, has been a national model.
But there remain barriers, sometimes put in place by the colleges themselves, that hinder bright high school students from getting into top colleges. Here are four steps that would help level the playing field when low-income students apply for college:
1. Don't consider whether a parent is an alumnus. Many universities give preference to the children of alums, which works to the disadvantage of first-generation students. An analysis of 30 top schools found that legacy applicants had a 23 percentage point increase in their chances of being admitted when compared to otherwise similar candidates, Levy reported.
Duke and N.C. State University consider whether a family member is an alumnus as one of many factors for admission. For out-of-state applicants, UNC-Chapel Hill gives preference to the children of alums; for in-state students there is no formal preference but a spokesman said, "We may see this family connection as one part of the student’s larger story."
2. Don't consider donations or potential future donations from the family of the applicants. Doing so clearly favors children from wealthier families. NCSU, Duke and UNC say they do not consider donations when reviewing applications.
3. Make sure early admissions policies do not favor wealthier students. At some schools, students who apply for early admission — and are willing to commit to the college — have a better chance of being admitted. Students from lower-income families might be unwilling to do this because they are unsure how much financial aid they will receive. Students who apply for early admission tend to be more affluent, Clotfelter said.
NCSU and UNC allow students to apply at an early date but there is no binding commitment on the student’s part. Duke has an early decision option; students who are accepted receive their financial aid awards at the same time, and Duke says it meets the full financial need for all eligible students.
4. Give lower-income students extra consideration. Wealthier parents can afford to live in the best school districts or send their kids to private schools. As Levy wrote, they can afford application coaches, test-prep tutors, essay editors and college tours for their children. Clotfelter urges schools to consider that lower-income students often cannot afford these benefits.
Clotfelter proposes that the top colleges band together and make changes to their admissions policies so that none will be at a competitive disadvantage. Doing so could help give students from poorer families a better shot at success in college and life.