The Impossible Math of College Admissions

Colleges say they want more low-income students. So why are they admitting so many wealthy ones? The NYT article excerpted below tries to answer that.

And for most colleges the answer is simple.  To meet their costs they need to charge high prices for their services and the children of poor families just cannot  afford those prices. So to get poor students on campus colleges have to slash what they charge.  But they can't do much of that or they would go broke.

So for most colleges economic necessity dictates that only a small percentage of admissions will be of students from a poor background, no matter how smart they may be.

But what about really rich schools such as Harvard who could afford to charge no fees at all if they chose?  So they have a lot of students from poor backgrounds, right?  Wrong.  Such schools tend to have the fewest poor students of all.  So why?  To put it crudely, admitting many poor students would lower the "tone" of the college -- and tone is a big part of their identity.

So how is "tone" enforced?  Via the "holistic" system of admissions. "Holistic" judgements are used to admit a few blacks and sportsmen but their main function is to keep out those awful poor people.  If you spend a year doing the grand tour of Europe or "helping" blacks in Botswana, your tone score is high.  If you spent similar time flipping burgers your tone score is prohibitive. You are just not "suitable"

Over the last decade, two distinct conversations about college admissions and class have been taking place in the United States. The first one has been conducted in public, at College Board summits and White House conferences and meetings of philanthropists and nonprofit leaders. The premise of this conversation is that inequity in higher education is mostly a demand-side problem: Poor kids are making regrettable miscalculations as they apply to college. Selective colleges would love to admit more low-income students — if only they could find enough highly qualified ones who could meet their academic standards.

The second conversation is the one that has been going on among the professionals who labor behind the scenes in admissions offices — or “enrollment management” offices, as they are now more commonly known. This conversation, held more often in private, starts from the premise that the biggest barriers to opportunity for low-income students in higher education are on the supply side — in the universities themselves, and specifically in the admissions office. Enrollment managers know there is no shortage of deserving low-income students applying to good colleges. They know this because they regularly reject them — not because they don’t want to admit these students, but because they can’t afford to.

There is a tiny minority of American colleges where tuition revenue doesn’t matter much to the institution’s financial health. Harvard and Princeton and Stanford have such enormous endowments and such dependable alumni donors that they are able to spend lavishly to educate their students, with only a small percentage of those funds coming from the students themselves. But most private colleges, including Trinity, operate on a model that depends heavily on tuition for their financial survival. And for many colleges, that survival no longer seems at all certain: According to Moody’s Investors Service, about a quarter of private American colleges are now operating at a deficit, spending more than they are taking in.

In public, university leaders like to advertise the diversity of their freshman classes and their institutions’ generosity with financial aid. In private, they feel immense pressure to maintain tuition revenue and protect their school’s elite status. The public and private are inevitably in conflict, and the place on each campus where that conflict plays out is the admissions office.

When Angel Pérez arrived at Trinity and took a close look at the way the admissions office had been making its decisions, what he found left him deeply concerned. “We were taking some students who probably should not have been admitted, but we were taking them because they could pay,” he told me. “They went to good high schools, but they were maybe at the bottom of their class. The motivation wasn’t there. So the academic quality of our student body was dropping.”

At Trinity, Pérez’s predecessors had been able to capitalize on a pattern that admissions officers say they often see: At expensive prep schools, even students close to the bottom of the class usually have above-average SAT scores, mostly because they have access to high-octane test-prep classes and tutors.

“O.K., you’re not motivated, you’re doing the minimum at your high school,” Pérez explained, describing the students Trinity used to admit in droves. “You have not worked as hard as your peers. But you did the test prep, and you learned how to play the SAT game.”

If you work in admissions at a place like Trinity was before Pérez arrived, SAT scores can provide a convenient justification for admitting the kind of students you might feel compelled to accept because they can pay full tuition. It’s hard to feel good about choosing an academically undeserving rich kid over a striving and ambitious poor kid with better high school grades. But if the rich student you’re admitting has a higher SAT score than the poor student you’re rejecting, you can tell yourself that your decision was based on “college readiness” rather than ability to pay.

The problem is, rich kids who aren’t motivated to work hard and get good grades in high school often aren’t college-ready, however inflated their SAT scores may be. At Trinity, this meant there was a growing number of affluent students on campus who couldn’t keep up in class and weren’t interested in trying. “It had a morale effect on our faculty,” Pérez told me. “They were teaching a very divided campus. The majority of students were really smart and engaged and curious, and then you’ve got these other students” — the affluent group with pumped-up SAT scores and lower G.P.A.s — “who were wondering, How did I get into this school?”

Hidden away among the wealthy masses on the Trinity campus was a small cohort of low-income students. When Pérez arrived, about 10 percent of the student body was eligible for a Pell grant, the federal subsidy for college students from low-income families, and many of those were students of color. Academically, Trinity’s low-income students were significantly outperforming the rich kids on campus; the six-year graduation rate for Pell-eligible students at Trinity was 92 percent, compared with 76 percent for the rest of the student body. But Trinity’s low-income students — at least the ones I spoke to during my visits to campus in 2017 — were often miserable, struggling to find their place on a campus where the dominant student culture was overwhelmingly privileged and white.

But perhaps the most startling fact about the pre-Pérez admissions strategy at Trinity was that it was not doing much to help the college stay afloat financially. As Pérez saw it, this was mostly a question of demographics. The pool of affluent 18-year-old Americans was shrinking, especially in the Northeast, and the ones who remained had come to understand that they had significant bargaining power when it came to negotiating tuition discounts with the colleges that wanted to admit them. As a result, paradoxically, Trinity was going broke educating an unusually wealthy student body.


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