Income and wealth inequality in the United States, which has become even more pronounced since 1967, continues to interfere with the national need for an increasingly sophisticated and skilled workforce and citizenry. Federal financial assistance to financially needy college students is a rational response to this recognized social and economic inequality. About 30 years ago, in ways clearly demonstrated by Tom Mortenson in ”How to Limit Opportunity for Higher Education 1980 – 2011,” federal and state policy shifts placed an increasing share of the cost of higher education on students and their families, turning higher education into a commodity provided to those who could pay. Primarily as a consequence of these policies and the associated spiraling costs of attending college, the growth in the portion of our population with a college degree has been slow, increasing from 17 to 30 percent over the past 30 years. Strikingly, the gains were made primarily by those from the wealthiest backgrounds (18 percent increase) in contrast to a small 4 percent growth, over the same 30 years, for those in the lowest socioeconomic quartile.
Globally, as various analyses show, while many countries are making solid progress in educating their populations, the United States is losing ground, slipping from first to 12th among 36 developed countries in percent of the population with a degree. Although American students from the upper quartile of the national income distribution can continue to have high expectations of completing college, their success alone is not enough for our economy and society to thrive.
If we are to educate the nation to meet the current challenges of the global economy, our democratic society, and our planet, we need to use all means possible to educate the largest number of people possible. This will require increased financial assistance for low- and moderate-income students. Federal and state support for education is the single most rational investment we can make in our future. Yet we continue to face threats even to the inadequate support that remains today. Some current candidates for president of the United States oppose any federal role in supporting college students.
The return on investment (tax dollars) in Pell Grants and other forms of federal assistance is currently being measured by the number of degrees produced for the number of grants given. Since data are not systematically collected, it is estimated that 30 to 50 percent of Pell recipients graduate with a bachelor’s degree in six years or an associate degree in three years.
Whatever the exact number, for some observers it is easy to conclude simplistically that the "return" is not worth the investment of tax dollars -- even at a 50 percent degree completion rate -- because those who receive Pell Grants aren’t measuring up and therefore Pell funds must be reduced. Interestingly, there is no national discussion about the effectiveness (or not) of tax credits for college tuition, which benefit those with higher incomes. And merit aid by institutions of course helps the wealthier and leaves less need-based aid.
Although finances are often among the primary reasons for student dropouts or stopouts before degree completion, higher education cannot avoid its share of the responsibility. We cannot evade blame for our own inability to innovate and respond to the students in our colleges and universities by simply pointing to their lack of financing and lack of academic preparation for higher education. We college and university administrators and faculty need to own this issue. We need to own the overall 56 percent graduation rate for all those who enroll in college -- keeping in mind that graduation rates correlate perfectly with family income level. In 2009, the bachelor’s degree completion rates for those who enrolled in a college or university were 19.9 percent for those from the lowest income quartile, 28.2 percent for the second quartile, 51.4 percent for those from the third quartile and 97.9 percent for those from the top quartile. (Mortenson “Family Income and Educational Attainment 1970 to 2009”).
These data make clear that the crisis in higher education completion rates in the United States is really a crisis of completion for this who are not wealthy.
Copious data, like Mortenson’s cited above, indicate that a caste-like education system exists in America. The economic group you are born into is the best predictor of your access to and completion of a college degree. This should be unacceptable to a democracy. It should be unacceptable to higher education. How can we feel good about being part of an enterprise in human development that solidly succeeds only with wealthy people?
Instead of asking what’s wrong with the students who don’t complete a college education, we need to admit that something is wrong with the educational experience offered to almost half of the students who actually enroll. What is the matter with the way we are educating in the 21st century that results in these low success rates for those that we enroll? Only if you come from the highest income quartile (over $100,000) can we feel comfortable that you will be a “good fit” and continue on the path of intellectual and social development that will lead to the awarding of a college degree.
Is it not the responsibility of educators to address this caste-like education system and not leave the statistics for policy makers to use as justification for eliminating financial support for those who need it? Pell Grants are currently being defined as a failure based on the graduation rates of those who receive them. Implicit in the condemnation is a suggestion that the recipients of Pell Grants are not “college material” and so they fail to complete college. But while Pell Grants are necessary, they are not sufficient: Pell Grants are the means to assist in access and persistence; they are not sufficient on their own to get to the desired ends.
If Pell Grants are to succeed, then institutions must recognize their responsibility to craft learning environments for the 21st century --- collaborative learning environments that engage the whole student as well as the whole campus in learning. If we are serious about changing graduation outcomes, all current systems and processes, that constitute the way we do business, need to be reexamined putting at the center a student who may not have been on a path to college since birth and who must integrate financial and perhaps familial responsibilities into their life as a student. Rather than having this reality be the cause of attrition, how can higher education be reshaped to be inclusive of these full lives? How do recruitment, student life, financial aid, the president’s office, advising, the athletic program, learning inside and outside of the classroom reshape themselves to better meet students where they are rather than where they might be if they came from more privileged backgrounds? Those in higher education are often called upon to apply their wisdom and creativity to finding solutions and improving outcomes that benefit all of us. Educational inequality, particularly as it resides right within the academy, is such a challenge.
The question of financing students and financing the institutions who serve them should be addressed collectively as well: How can costs be reduced by more institutional collaboration and less duplication of services? The demographics of those who earn their living in the academy and are responsible for the values and processes of higher education differ from those who we most need to increase their success in the academy. Yet it is exactly those who are now underrepresented in higher education -- those from low-income backgrounds, who are likely to be the first in their families to attend college, and who are likely to be from communities of color and from rural America; those who may well be the recipients of state and federal assistance -- who are the 21st-century Americans who must take their rightful places in higher education, in our economy and our civil society.
Without them, America will continue to lag behind on the global economic, political and cultural stage. All of these areas are dependent on an educated population that can create far less inequality than we seem willing to accept today. Without them, we are giving up on the power of our country to further evolve the reality of democracy as an inclusive model of how people can progress. Instead, we are accepting increasing inequality and division among people on all measures that matter.
What is the purpose of the 3000+ institutions of higher education in our country if not to meet these students where they are and engage with them in the process of their intellectual growth? And yes, I’ve been in the classroom and know how hard it is. It is extra hard if you can’t take learning outside of the classroom; if you can’t shed the mantle of your own Ph.D. and admit there is much you can learn from your students and from other educators on campus; if you can’t penetrate the elitist boundary between “student life” and “academics”; if the future of your job depends on enrolling “full pay” students and achieving high rankings in U.S. News & World Report; if you see other colleges as competitors for those students and those rankings; if you are forced to function narrowly within the hierarchy of your university and the hierarchy of higher education.
Educators have the capacity as well as the responsibility to discuss, imagine and ask for the changes that are necessary for education in the 21st century. Instead of measuring the “return on Pell,” we should be measuring the success of individual colleges and universities in adding value to our society by producing graduates from among those who have been and remain underrepresented. It’s a challenge that has been addressed by conferences, studies, books, and reports. But where are the regional and national standards to hold colleges and universities accountable for helping the country meet a critical need -- more college- educated citizens from all income backgrounds?
Those of us who have made both education and increasing social justice our life's work have a responsibility to do the work that needs to be done. It starts with being willing to change in order to help transform.
Gloria Nemerowicz, formerly the president of Pine Manor College, is founder and president of the Yes We Must Coalition.
The University of Maine is building on its highly visible tuition-matching program for undergraduates by starting a similar new program for graduate students.
The university's new regional graduate scholarship will be available to new fully admitted students from Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont starting this fall. It will drop out-of-state tuition from $1,361 per credit hour to $650 per credit hour for 22 programs. That's the same price or lower than students would pay if they were attending a flagship campus in their own state, according to the university.
Every year without fail, a well-respected educator comes out against early-admission programs, calling them “barriers to keep most low-income students out.” This year’s quote is from a recent piece in Inside Higher Ed by Harold O. Levy, a former chancellor of the New York City Public Schools and the executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.
I have great respect for Levy and for the significant work done by the Cooke Foundation to advance students of great potential from economically disadvantaged families. But early-admission programs are not discriminatory by definition at the bulk of the nation’s nonprofit, four-year colleges and universities. And in fact, they do not have to act against the inclusion of disadvantaged students at the nation’s most prestigious institutions. Here’s why.
It is true that many low-income students are not aware of early-decision programs because they are the first generation in their family to go to college and attend high schools where counselors are responsible for 1,000 or more students each. But colleges and universities can and do promote early decision and early action in all of their search communications, on their websites and in their brochures. And those of us who are committed to enrolling low-income students go out of our way to connect with them and to make them aware of early programs while saving places for them in the regular pool. Pell-eligible students represent 35 percent of the enrollment at my institution, Drew University, and we have an early-decision program -- so it can be done. Further, those students graduate at the essentially same rate as the other two-thirds of the student body, so they are being served well.
Many highly selective colleges are now test optional in admission, so the fact that low-income students may not have test scores in time for early deadlines is a nonissue at those institutions. And the notion that low-income students can’t commit to enrolling through an early-decision program because they need financial aid is an equally empty hypothesis.
First of all, the early Free Application for Federal Student Aid allows colleges to award actual aid upon early-decision admission. Second, as every early-decision institution will tell you, if the aid is not sufficient in the family’s mind, the student will be released from the early-decision commitment.
I always tell students and their parents that they should apply in a binding early-decision program only if parents know how much they are willing and able to contribute toward college expenses, and if they are not interested in comparing offers from other institutions. If they receive enough to make attendance possible, and the college is the student’s first choice, then the process has successfully concluded. If, however, they want to shop for the best deal, then early decision is not for them. But we can’t just say that early decision is bad for all low-income students.
In many ways, early decision is the best time to apply for financial aid, because colleges do not exhaust their grant resources during the early round. And as I said, if the aid is not sufficient, colleges will release students from the early commitment. This is a no-lose proposition for the student.
Levy presents compelling evidence of the disparity of incomes represented in early-decision programs:
The Cooke Foundation study found that only 16 percent of high-achieving students from families with annual incomes below $50,000 applied for college admission on an early-decision basis in the 2013-14 academic year. But 29 percent of high-achieving students from families with incomes above $250,000 applied on an early-decision basis. Is it any wonder that so many more upper-income students gain admission?
To be fair, that needs to be put into context. According to a 2014 report from the Pew Research Center, 51 percent of all low-income students were enrolled in college compared to 81 percent of all high-income students (defining low income as the bottom 20 percent of all family incomes and high income as the top 20 percent). In other words, many more high-income students enroll in college in the first place, so it is not surprising that many more high-income students also enroll through early decision.
This underscores the real issue for American higher education. We need to spend less time advocating for the elimination of a program, like early admission, that attracts higher-income students (who, by the way, help to bring in the revenue to support lower-income students) and more time -- as the Cooke Foundation and many colleges do so well -- developing better ways to recruit and support low-income students through to graduation. The future competitiveness of our country depends on it.
Robert Massa is senior vice president for enrollment and institutional planning at Drew University. He previously served as vice president for enrollment and college relations at Dickinson College and as dean of enrollment at Johns Hopkins University.
A little over a year ago, our enrollment team at Augustana College met in retreat to discuss the anticipated impact of prior-prior year submission of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or early FAFSA, as it is called now. We completed a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis of what we perceived as entwined in this big change to the financial aid and recruitment timetable. After considerable discussion, we created new timetables, developed a new communication sequence for our prospective and current students, established new and updated old systems, and took a deep breath as we faced an uncertain future with new time frames and a new process.
As we spoke with visiting families during the spring and summer months, we were pleasantly surprised by how many seemed to be informed and fully aware that the FAFSA would now be available for submission on Oct. 1, rather than Jan. 1 -- and that applicants will be able to use income information from two-year-old completed tax returns rather than sometimes incomplete information from the previous year. The high level of awareness continued into the fall. All visit days and high school visits confirmed that families, school counselors and other influencers were aware, had adjusted timetables and were itching to submit the FAFSA earlier than ever before.
Oct. 1 came quickly, and so did the FAFSA submissions. It seemed as if many families were sitting at the computer ready to submit the infamous form in the same way many of us waited to order tickets for Broadway’s Hamilton, refreshing their browsers until they could get in and get it done.
In fact, the early volume of FAFSAs submitted from prospective and current students stunned Augustana’s office of financial aid. All the table tents in the dining hall, the umpteen emails we sent out, our first-ever FAFSA print mailer and the inclusion of the FAFSA timeline in our application instructions had worked. We are rolling in FAFSAs and have exceeded last year’s total volume from first-year students by 40 percent.
Given the high conversion/yield rate for FAFSA submitters in the past cycle, it’s time to break out the champagne. I mean, we’ve done it. We reconditioned the marketplace, prospective students and their families are following our directions, and now we just need to execute. Right?
I confess that I’ve enthusiastically shared the volume numbers with faculty and staff members, the president, and the chair of the Augustana Board of Trustees, and I even tweeted about it early on. But I also admit that I don’t know whether our numbers are strong or soft indicators. Perhaps, I suspect, they are a little of both.
And as I dig into the data, I am increasingly convinced that these lead indicators require very cautious interpretation and should temper my exuberance. Let me offer a couple of examples.
First, because of the U.S. Department of Education’s caution about establishing early timetables for submission, and the potential impact on underserved populations, I have been watching FAFSA submissions for applicants of color carefully and am cautious about what I see. Currently, we continue to see trailing rates of submission for students of color in the applicant pool, with more than 40 percent of those students who applied for admissions not yet filing the FAFSA. The department’s caution is relevant to all of us, and we must now ask what we can do to increase the filer rate among this important population.
Second, nearly 20 percent of those students who have submitted the FAFSA have not yet applied to my college for admission. Some of these FAFSA submitters are even coded as having asked us to cease communication with them. Now, a universal truth in college admissions is that 100 percent of the students who don’t apply don’t enroll. While there certainly is plenty of time for these hundreds of FAFSA submitters to still apply (and I sure hope they do), it’s also reasonable to conclude that we are not a serious consideration for them, making this usually strong indicator meaningless.
There is more to investigate as we look at these very early indicators, but only time will tell us what all of this means.
Looking at the data, I wonder if the Department of Education and all of those who pushed for early FAFSA may have just created the newest fast-application program. Fast-application programs for college admissions are frequently criticized for inflating applicant pools and making it too simple and too convenient for students to apply. These same programs make it difficult for new users in college admissions to interpret what an increase in volume may really mean to yield and enrollments.
Think about it. We’ve made it easier to submit the FAFSA. We’ve aggressively communicated about submitting the FAFSA. We’ve created a marketed FAFSA with the IRS data-retrieval tool. We have systemwide partners, like the Common Application, more effectively encouraging the submission of the FAFSA. We’ve done our best to better align the cost and admissions decision.
It seems we are doing all of the right things. But are we reaching all the right students and families --those most likely to choose Augustana and thrive here?
I am a believer in making the entire process more transparent and less complicated, and in aligning the cost and search process. But I wonder if early FAFSA will just add a new complication for colleges and families -- and more noise that must be interpreted and filtered. Only time will tell.
W. Kent Barnds is executive vice president at Augustana College.
January is the time when we say good-bye to the previous 12 months and look ahead to the next ones. It’s clear that 2016 was an especially turbulent year for higher education. What’s on tap for 2017?
Here are a few of the most serious trending issues that are likely to affect colleges and universities.
Sliding enrollments. College and university enrollment in America continued to decline in 2016, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Not all institutions have been affected equally: four-year public and elite private institutions continue to grow, while small colleges are under strain, intensifying the gap between haves and have-nots. The University of California, Berkeley, for example, tipped over the 100,000 mark for applications this fall, and Yale University announced a multiyear effort to enroll more students from its sizable pool. But more than four in 10 private colleges and almost three in 10 public ones missed their goals for enrollment and tuition revenue in 2016.
While demographic trends vary by region, in general the student population is becoming more diverse, fueled by increases in numbers of Hispanic and Asian students. Many colleges also have relied upon international students to diversify their campuses and plug the enrollment hole, but concerns over Trump administration rhetoric about immigration may depress international applications, as has already occurred in British universities in the wake of the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union.
Concerns about cost and access. The free-college effort is likely dead at the federal level, but that doesn’t mean concerns about cost will abate. Bipartisan pressure will continue to force colleges and universities to rein in tuition increases and justify endowment spending, as well as compel selective institutions to increase enrollment of low-income students. States and cities also have the opportunity to adopt the narrative about free; New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was first out of the gate in 2017, and others are likely to follow.
Celebrity authors and scholars as well as politicians have led such efforts. Malcolm Gladwell launched a podcast series in 2016 decrying the high cost of college and poor access for low-income students. Sara Goldrick-Rab at Temple University and Inside Higher Edcolumnist Wick Sloan, among others, have led campaigns to highlight the challenges of college students who are homeless or food insecure -- more than 20 percent, according to a national report.
Colleges and universities are responding. Thirty campuses have joined an effort funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies called the American Talent Initiative, while more than 90 institutions participate in the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success. Both efforts aim to reduce barriers and increase the number of lower-income students who apply to and enroll in selective colleges. Campuses also are launching food banks, shelter programs and emergency assistance funds for students who have short-term challenges with food or housing.
Questions about value. A growing chorus of business and civic leaders is questioning the value of college. One of the most vocal proponents of the skip-college narrative, Peter Thiel, has a newly influential role as a member of the Trump transition team. The presidential election pointed up a stark gap in opportunity and perception between college graduates and those with a college degree, leading to headlines about the “humbling of higher education” and college graduates who are “out of touch.”
Colleges are renewing their efforts to demonstrate value, not only in employment and earnings benefits to graduates but also in their role as an economic engine for regional economies. A growing number of campuses, both large and small, have embarked on new efforts to engage with their local communities. And research institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania and Carnegie Mellon University have large, sustained innovation initiatives to spur new business development and commercialize faculty and student discoveries.
A focus on careers and job placement. Although related to the discussion about value, the growing concern about employment and job placement is so powerful that it deserves its own entry. Students and parents increasingly expect their college or university to be a partner in helping them to map out a successful career path. The 2016 Gallup-Purdue study found a gap between student expectations and college performance in career placement, with only one in six college graduates saying their campus career office was helpful.
Colleges and universities of all types and sizes -- from research-intensive institutions to small liberal arts colleges -- are revamping career services and redefining their role in student career planning. Examples of new programs include engaging first-year students in the career office from day one, alumni career mentoring initiatives and targeted efforts to provide career support for low-income and first-generation college students.
Declining state support. Although not a new trend, the impact of declining state support for higher education has generated a new level of concern. Starving the Beast, a documentary about ideological shifts in state government and the resulting impact on public universities, was released in 2016 and sparked public discussion and numerous opinion pieces.
In December, the University of Virginia’s Miller Center issued recommendations on how to sustain public higher education. The center assembled a team of college administrators, business executives and former public officials, including former governors of Delaware and Florida. Their list of solutions includes federal block grants designed to pressure states into supporting public colleges adequately, as well as funding incentives tied to graduation rates.
Collisions over campus climate. Creating a welcoming climate for women and minorities is a long-running issue for college campuses, but things reached a boiling point after the 2016 presidential election. White nationalist groups have seized the opportunity to spread hate messages on campuses across the country. Trump rhetoric about immigration and Muslims has left many students feeling vulnerable, leading to pressure for campuses to declare themselves “sanctuaries” for undocumented students.
Immigration policy under a Trump administration is uncertain, as is the position of the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights -- and in particular the enforcement of Title IX. Regardless of federal policy, activism around Title IX and sexual misconduct is likely to continue, and campuses are expected to sharpen their focus on programs, policies and support systems to combat sexual assault and harassment.
The dialogue about campus climate has increasingly included overcoming a racist past. Some institutions -- Georgetown University has been a leader -- have owned up to a history of slavery and made significant changes such as renaming buildings or programs. Other campuses have dedicated new or existing spaces in honor of African-American leaders. Whether proactively, such as the University of Michigan, or responding to a crisis, such as the University of Missouri, a number of colleges and universities have launched comprehensive plans focused on diversity and inclusion.
The defense of academic freedom and free speech. The University of Chicago brought free speech back into the spotlight this fall with the welcome letter its college dean sent to incoming students. Exactly what constitutes free speech in a university, and does it conflict with trigger warnings and attempts to create safe spaces for vulnerable groups such as members of racial minorities or survivors of sexual assault? Although all colleges defend free speech and play an important role in educating students about it, the precise boundaries vary from one campus to another.
One thing is certain: it’s easier to argue for free speech when you’re the one speaking. After the presidential election, some students who voted for Trump felt attacked and said they needed safe space, too. A “professor watch list” has been launched to shame faculty members conservatives think are pushing liberal ideas in the classroom. And the Trump transition team recently sent questionnaires throughout the Department of Energy to identify work done on climate change, raising alarm bells in the academy. Climate scientists are now organizing to defend their research and academic freedom.
So, What to Do?
The tensions are mounting and so are the stakes. Since head in the sand is not an effective strategy, we’d like to offer a few guideposts for higher education institutions that are navigating today’s uncertain terrain.
Be self-critical. Colleges and universities can assess and acknowledge areas for improvement and confront them with constructive game plans. Proactive leadership begins with self-evaluation and plans for change.
Make sure college is worth it. It is not enough to decry the devaluing of a liberal education. Our scan shows just how deep public skepticism about the cost and value of college runs, and higher education must find substantial ways both to lower student costs and increase the return on their investment. Career assistance, better information about job placement, opportunities for internships and increases in scholarship support all have to be on each institution’s docket.
Bridge the divide with new communications methods and fresh perspective. If it is us versus them, we cannot make progress. From continued defunding of public higher ed to sensationalized campus rhetoric, polarized stances are inhibiting shared understanding. Can we set aside blame and labels and work instead to listen more carefully toward finding some common ground? That will entail an authentic, two-way dialogue and new ways of describing and demonstrating value in today’s world, not just the usual universityspeak.
Find innovative new collaborators and partnerships. The coming year won’t be one of business as usual. New partnerships and opportunities, more innovation, and perhaps the occasional odd bedfellow can help illuminate new opportunities and advance mutual goals.
Get out ahead. The colleges and universities that best weather challenging storms are those that best anticipate and confront issues early and honestly.
Lisa M. Rudgers and Julie A. Peterson are co-founders of Peterson Rudgers Group, a consulting firm focused on higher education strategy, leadership and brand.
Many colleges and universities loudly and proudly proclaim they are committed to admitting more low-income students. The institutions are sincere, but despite the best of intentions, many of their policies act as barriers to keep most low-income students out, including those students with outstanding academic records.
The exclusion of the brightest low-income students is most severe at our nation’s highly selective colleges. A study issued this year by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, where I serve as executive director, found that a mere 3 percent of students at America’s top colleges come from the 25 percent of families with the lowest incomes. In contrast, 72 percent of students at these institutions come from the 25 percent of families with the highest incomes.
This enormous gap in admissions between students in the highest and lowest income groups is a national embarrassment. It doesn’t exist because the rich are smarter than the poor. It exists because the rich are getting a lot of breaks the poor simply aren’t. One of those breaks is the policy of early admissions.
Candidates for early admissions get many advantages, but the disadvantage the practice confers on low-income students is a fatal flaw. For that reason, colleges should abandon early admissions and return to admitting all students on the same timetable in the spring, so everyone competes on a level playing field.
According to the College Board, about 450 colleges now offer early admissions. That’s up from just over 100 in the 1990s, a Stanford University study found. There are two types of early admissions. Early-decision admissions require students to commit to attend the college if admitted and withdraw applications to other schools. Early action is not binding, so students are not required to attend after being admitted.
A survey by The Washington Post earlier this year “found 37 schools where the early-decision share of enrolled freshmen in 2015 was at least 40 percent,” including 54 percent at the University of Pennsylvania. That leaves a lot fewer openings for students applying during the regular admission period.
Early-admissions policies are good for colleges, because they attract students with a strong desire to attend, making it less likely the students will turn down offers of admission. That allows colleges to fill a good chunk of each freshman class early with a diverse mix of students. It also lets them shape a class with students needing little or no financial aid, to keep institutional budgets in balance.
On top of that, early admissions help colleges decrease their acceptance rates. College rankings, such as those complied by U.S. News & World Report, often use a low admit rate as an indication of an institution’s desirability, boosting its ranking.
Early-admissions policies are also good for students who apply this way -- usually by early November instead of the standard application deadline in January or February. Students admitted early find out in December or January, instead of during the regular admission-decision period in late April. That saves them months of worry and uncertainty and enables them to avoid applying to colleges that were merely backup choices.
More significantly, applying early can dramatically increase a student’s chances of acceptance at his or her first-choice school -- particularly at the most selective colleges and universities. For example, for the Class of 2020, only 6.8 percent of all students who applied for regular-decision admission to Ivy League schools were accepted. But the acceptance rate in the Ivy League for early-decision applicants was 20.3 percent -- nearly three times as high.
At Harvard University, which had the lowest acceptance rate in the Ivy League, just 3.4 percent of students applying for regular admission to the Class of 2020 were admitted, compared to 14.9 percent of those applying early. A study published by Harvard University Press estimated that students applying for early admission receive the equivalent of a 100-point bonus on the SAT -- an enormous advantage.
Students from affluent families often learn about the advantages of applying for early admissions from their college-educated parents, from expensive courses they take to prepare for taking the SAT and ACT exams, from their high school counselors or from private college coaches their parents hire to boost their admission chances.
But many low-income students are unaware of the option of applying early. Their parents typically have not gone to college and so can’t advise them. Guidance counselors at high schools with many low-income students are responsible for advising hundreds or as many as 1,000 students each, and so don’t have the time and, in many cases, the training to explain all the steps students can take to increase their odds of college admission.
For example, many low-income students are never told in their junior year of high school that they will need to have their ACT or SAT scores in hand by early-admission application deadlines, which are in November of their senior year. To have the scores in time, they need to take one or both of the tests in their junior year or the very beginning of their senior year in high school.
Most important, because low-income students can’t attend college without getting substantial financial aid, they can’t commit to enrolling in an institution by applying on an early-decision basis. They need to compare aid offers once they hear from all the colleges and universities that accept them. This fact alone essentially precludes those with financial need from applying early.
In contrast, wealthy students -- whose parents can pay their full college costs without financial aid -- have no problem applying for and accepting early-decision admissions.
The Cooke Foundation study found that only 16 percent of high-achieving students from families with annual incomes below $50,000 applied for college admission on an early-decision basis in the 2013-14 academic year. But 29 percent of high-achieving students from families with incomes above $250,000 applied on an early-decision basis. Is it any wonder that so many more upper-income students gain admission?
The blatant unfairness of early admissions was obvious even before they became as widespread as they are today. In 2006, Harvard University, Princeton University and the University of Virginia eliminated early admissions to give all students a fairer chance of being admitted. But unfortunately, they later had to reinstate early-action admissions to remain competitive when essentially all other colleges and universities offering early admissions refused to drop the policy.
Derek Bok, who was president of Harvard in 2006 when early admissions were dropped, justified the move in words that are as true today as they were 10 years ago. “Early-admission programs tend to advantage the advantaged,” Bok said. “Students from more sophisticated backgrounds and affluent high schools often apply early to increase their chances of admission, while minority students and students from rural areas, other countries and high schools with fewer resources miss out. Students needing financial aid are disadvantaged by binding early-decision programs that prevent them from comparing aid packages. Others who apply early and gain admission to the college of their choice have less reason to work hard at their studies during their final year of high school.”
Similarly, a 2011 study of early admissions -- published in Teachers College Record and supported by the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice at the University of Southern California -- concluded that “those who enroll through early deadlines tend to be white, with higher family incomes and parents with greater levels of education.” The study added that “early decision in particular works as a sort of class-based affirmative action that gives wealthier applicants a ‘plus’ factor: a higher likelihood of being admitted than if they applied under the regular-decision deadline.”
The sad truth is that in our nation that proclaims itself “the land of opportunity,” the wealthy have far greater educational opportunities than the poor. A 2014 White House report explains just how much greater when it states, “While half of all people from high-income families have a bachelor’s degree by age 25, just one in 10 people from low-income families do.”
When the wealthy are getting college degrees at a rate five times higher than the poor, something is terribly wrong and unjust. And it’s not only the low-income students who are being hurt. Our nation is being deprived of the talents of young people who could go on to become doctors, scientists, entrepreneurs, teachers and government leaders -- and who could fill many other vital jobs if only they had the chance to get a college education.
Barriers to equal educational opportunity for academically qualified students need to come down. One of the first to go -- and one that won’t require massive government spending to eliminate -- should be early-admissions policies in our nation’s colleges and universities.
Former New York City Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy is executive director of the Cooke Foundation, which has awarded over $152 million in scholarships to nearly 2,200 high-achieving students from low-income families and over $90 million in grants to organizations that serve such students.