Opponents of race-based affirmative action in college admissions urge that colleges use a different tool to encourage diversity: giving a leg up to poor students. But many educators see real limits to how eager colleges are to enroll more poor students, no matter how qualified — and the reason is money.
“It’s expensive,” said Donald E. Heller, dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University. “You have to go out and identify them, recruit them and get them to apply, and then it’s really expensive once they enroll because they need more financial aid.”
The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon in a closely watched case over admissions at the University of Texas at Austin, and the court could outlaw any consideration of race.
Opponents of affirmative action welcome that prospect, arguing that race-conscious admissions favor minority applicants who are not disadvantaged, and people on both sides of the issue contend that colleges should do more to achieve socioeconomic diversity. Polls show that while most Americans oppose racial or ethnic preferences in college admissions, they also think colleges should give extra help to the poor.
Some states have already banned affirmative action, including California, Florida, Michigan and Washington, and in each of them, the selective public universities stepped up their efforts to recruit disadvantaged students, hoping to enroll more black, Hispanic and American Indian students in the process.
Opponents of race-conscious admissions say they expect similar moves across the country if the Supreme Court strikes down affirmative action.
But even in those race-blind states, highly selective public colleges vary widely in how hard they work to identify high-achieving, disadvantaged students and prepare them for college, how heavily they weight disadvantage in admissions, and how generous they are with financial aid. Not surprisingly, they also differ greatly in how many disadvantaged students they enroll — and the same is true among elite public and private schools that still do consider race and ethnicity.
Socioeconomic disadvantage can mean many things, like attending a low-performing high school or having parents who do not speak English, but one consistent measure available for nearly every American college is the number of students receiving Pell Grants, the main form of federal aid for low- and moderate-income students. In 2010-11, 35 percent of undergraduates going to four-year state colleges or private nonprofit colleges received Pell Grants. In general, the more selective the school, the lower that number was.
But in the University of California system, one of the most competitive in the country, more than 40 percent of students were Pell recipients, including 34 percent at Berkeley and 36 percent at Los Angeles, the two most selective campuses in the system. At the University of Michigan, which is similar in selectivity and prestige, and also operates under a ban on considering race, only 16 percent of undergraduates received Pell Grants.
So what accounts for the difference in the number of poor students enrolled in two similar elite public university systems, California’s and Michigan’s? Experts say that the level of state budget support, the intensity of recruitment efforts and other admissions decisions like legacy admissions are all factors.
One crucial factor is outreach programs, starting as early as the middle school years. Studies show that large numbers of talented low-income students are ill-prepared for college, or never apply to selective schools, as though those colleges and the students were invisible to each other.
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