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Q&A: Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education

Authors Eugene Tobin, former president of Hamilton College (N.Y.); Martin Kurzweil, research associate at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; and William Bowen, former president of Princeton University (N.J.) teamed up to study admissions practices at 19 college and universities and to co-author Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education.
University Business, Sep 2006

Authors Eugene Tobin, former president of Hamilton College (N.Y.); Martin Kurzweil, research associate at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; and William Bowen, former president of Princeton University (N.J.) teamed up to study admissions practices at 19 college and universities and to co-author Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education. Their basic findings come down to this: the 19 elite IHEs studied (see list below) deliver excellent higher education. What they don't do, in equal measure, is provide access to higher education to the poorest quartile of high school students. They argue that there are pools of undiscovered low-income students who have good grades, ambitions, and much academic promise. It is time, they say, for admissions officers to "put a thumb on the scale" in their favor.

They make a case for affirmative action and urge admissions officers to ditch athletic preferences and loosen the reigns on legacy admissions.

Tobin: Efforts need to be made to address the needs of the youngsters from disadvantaged families, including everything from improving healthcare and the quality of schools. The funding of public education in the U.S. is moving away from a tax-based system to something more progressive and equitable. At the state and federal levels, our recommendations would address ways of focusing upon the real needs of disadvantaged populations. In the early 1990s, a number of measures were taken by the Republican and Democratic administrations that have assisted people through tax-favored savings plans and tax-reduction plans. They are politically popular and enormously important to the middle class. But unless you are paying taxes and saving money for your child's education, you are not going to benefit from those kinds of programs.

Kurzweil: The reforms Gene outlined, while critically important, can't happen overnight. But some of the changes we recommended for the selective colleges and universities can happen quickly. The schools that can afford it should provide an admissions advantage [to academically qualified, low-income students]. This is a sort of affirmative action for low-income or otherwise socio-economically disadvantaged students. Currently the schools we studied treat low-income students, or those whose parents who didn't attend college, the same way they treat every other student who has the same S.A.T. scores and other characteristics in the admissions process.

There really is no admissions advantage at all for low-income students in the way that you would see an admissions advantage for recruited athletes or under-represented minority students, or legacy students of children of alumni. Given the challenges that those poor students had to overcome just to apply to these selective schools, given the lack of preparation Gene was talking about, it seems very unfair they are not given a helping hand once they make it into the applicant pool.

Tobin: What struck me when we were doing the research is that when you consider the hurdles the youngsters from disadvantaged families have had to leap over just to make it to what we call the credible applicant pool, the criteria that institutions currently use to determine their admissions preferences vary considerably. For example, we argue strongly that race-based considerations ought to be continued and that what many people call economic affirmative action should be used as a compliment to using race as one factor among many, as the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. But when we look at how they recruited athletes--who in our 19 institutions receive about a 30 percentage point preference--you have to ask yourself: Whose interests are being served? With the case of underrepresented minorities, it is society's interests that are being served by having students with those backgrounds in greater numbers in our colleges and universities of real selectivity.

But when you ask the question about legacies--which receive about a 20-point boost--it is murkier. There, as we argue in the book, institutions benefit enormously from the annual giving and the capital giving that they receive from alumni whose sons and daughters attend these universities. In most of the cases, legacy decisions are made in terms of admitting students who are extremely qualified. They bring an added sense of history and connection to the alma mater. We suggest those kinds of decisions in terms of legacies should be made very carefully and strategically. You have to be careful that when you are admitting a legacy student that the student is highly qualified and will contribute to the institution in more than just financial ways.

Similarly, when you look at the advantages granted to the students who apply early decision, you have to wonder how that squares with the advantages those students receive. If you are a financial aid applicant, you can't apply early decision. There are all kinds of inconsistencies in how criteria are applied.

Kurzweil: We decided to simulate what would happen if a low-income boost were added to the menu of admissions preferences. We took the admissions preferences given to legacy applicants and applied that preference to low-income applicants who had the same SAT scores. If a legacy student with an SAT. score of 1200 were getting in at a certain rate, we applied that rate to the low-income applicants. When we did that, we found that colleges and universities could increase the share of the enrolled students who are from the bottom income quartile from about 11 percent to about 17 percent, which is pretty substantial. We think you can do that without any real academic cost. This is based on the way legacies are given preference. The legacy students who are admitted are pretty well qualified. Also, currently there are a lot of low-income students who score well on the S.A.T. and who have pretty good G.P.A.s, but who aren't getting into these universities because they don't have the same kind of impressive resumes and extracurricular activities that wealthier students can afford to build when they are in high school. By taking their income into account, you can address that. You can find the students who are academically qualified.

Kuzweil: All of these schools have very generous financial aid programs. Our research suggests these financial aid programs have been very successful. The low-income students who are admitted enroll at higher rates than their more advantaged peers. So, if they were to maintain the financial aid programs and admit more low-income students, they are going to have to spend more on financial aid programs. Remember, though, that athletics programs cost a substantial amount of money at all of these schools and athletes take up a lot of admissions spots. One way that these schools might be able to make the finances work, and also make the admissions slots work, is if they were to decrease or eliminate athletic preferences. This would open spaces for low-income students and it would free up some money to pay for their financial aid.

Tobin: Add to that equation the fact that the recruited athletes we studied at these 19 institutions also under-perform academically, and it even makes a more compelling reason why preferences for that particular group needs to be considered very, very carefully.

Kurzweil: Compare this to the finding that low-income students currently enrolled don't underperform at all. They perform exactly as you would expect, knowing their other characteristics.

Tobin: We are just beginning to hear the voices of our colleagues. Many of the leaders at the 19 colleges and universities studied in the book signed the amicus briefs on behalf of the University of Michigan and its affirmative action cases. At the time they indicated they supported students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The data suggests, in fact, this is not the case. It has been very revealing for many of them. As Martin says, this is not an inconsiderable challenge to face, but as we say, among the 19, we are talking about some of the wealthiest institutions in the country. We think they can find a way to afford to do this. If they don't want to move forward in as comprehensive a way as we suggest, there are still ways to move in stages.

Look at what Harvard (Mass.) has done [in offering more scholarships and financial aid to disadvantaged students]. This policy announcement was followed by Princeton, Yale (Conn.) and Amherst College (Mass.) and public universities such as the University of North Carolina and the University of Virginia. They are, in fact, offering more generous financial aid to students from the bottom quartile, including replacing loans. We are saying that this is terrific for that segment of the population who earned the privilege to attend those universities, but they need to look just as hard at increasing the pool of candidates, which is larger than they have been able to identify so far.

Tobin: There is a lot of confusion. We find much of the merit aid awarded is given to students with genuine need. There has been a blurring of the lines in that regard. We suggest in the book that using merit aid strategically allows you to raise the academic profile of your incoming class by attracting students who attract other students through their academic excellence. That would seem a fair way to use merit aid. There are institutions using merit aid solely, in essence, to "buy" students who might otherwise go to similar institutions. We don't think this is the most effective use of resources.

Kurzweil: There is no reason why a top-tier institution should be giving merit aid. All they are doing is taking students away from other institutions and it is a wash in terms of social benefits.

Tobin: Many colleges find it better, in terms of marketing, to re-label needs-based aid as a merit scholarship. Others who might be interested in minimizing the percentage of budget would reallocate in terms of merit. Many institutions use these terms loosely.

Kurzweil: It is kind of a mess.

It has been two years since the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of the University of Michigan and its affirmative action policies. Yet, we haven't seen an increase in the percentage of minority students being enrolled at elite institutions. Why?

Kurzweil: That's because most institutions already had affirmative action programs in place. The decision regarding Michigan didn't take away those advantages. It stopped an attack on providing those advantages. I don't know if you would expect to see a change in the percentage of minority students. What we are concerned about in the wake of the Michigan cases is Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's expectation that affirmative action will no longer be necessary in 25 years. We commissioned a study from three economists to simulate what would happen with affirmative action 25 years from now. Would it be necessary? What they found is that if affirmative action would eliminated, even in 25 years, there would be even lower enrollments of minority students than what we have today.

Tobin: If you replace economic-based affirmative action versus race-based, you would see a decline by almost half in terms of the representation of students of color on these campuses. This is simply because the vast majority of poor people in America are white.

Kurzweil: And the majority of applicants to these institutions are white.

Tobin: We are asked what should be done--at the macro level and the micro level. One of them is to build a more aggressive recruitment pool. Identify youngsters in parts of the country whose high schools do not even appear on the radar screens of selective institutions.

Tobin: At the Mellon Foundation we are looking for seed money for institutions that are looking to find alternative means to measure academic potential. These are the institutions looking beyond the S.A.T. We think institutions need to look, as the Supreme Court said they should, in a personal and delineated way that puts the S.A.T. score aside and begins to get a better view of the student. Institutions need to study their own data carefully.

Some presidents might think there is an advantage in being poor when it comes to how their institutions make admissions decisions. Our evidence says that when the staff is seated around the admissions table and a recruited athletes name comes up, the coach can sit there and say, "This is a wonderful person and we need him or her for our team." But when the vast majority of names from the bottom quartile come up, there is really nobody there to speak or lobby on their behalf.

Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education

University of Virginia, 225, 472 pp. $27.95

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