SAN DIEGO -- The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers certainly knew what it was doing when it invited Education Trust's Kati Haycock to give the opening speech at its annual conference on enrollment management. 
Haycock and her group, which focuses on ensuring equitable education for students regardless of their race or socioeconomic status, have issued a series of reports criticizing college policies (overemphasis on standardized test scores, merit-based financial aid, etc.) that tend to benefit wealthy and white students over others. She was unlikely to pass up an opportunity to make her case directly to an audience of hundreds of campus administrators who might be in a position to shape the policies on their campuses.
As is her wont, Haycock (at left) did not hold back, painting a picture of increasing inequality in higher education in which, among other things, students from families in the highest quartile of family income are now 10 times likelier than those in the lowest quartile to have a bachelor's degree. But while she did not let the enrollment officials themselves off the hook, she directed most of her ire at their bosses -- presidents and other institutional leaders who set their colleges' and universities' directions and give the admissions offices their marching orders.
"A lot of colleges are deciding that they need more full-pay students, we need more international students, we need more of all these things that leave us less to invest in the poor," said Haycock, citing Inside Higher Ed's recent survey of admissions officers as evidence of institutional priorities. "I know you're getting more pressure to enroll full-pay students. Push back on that. You don't have to be a quiet cog in the wheel. You occupy important leadership roles on your campus. You're in a position to point things in a different direction if you force a conversation."
The situation is heading in the wrong direction now, Haycock asserted. While the U.S. has made gains in the last 15 years in enrolling members of minority groups and low-income students in college, the gaps in college-going rates have actually grown since 1990 because white and upper-income students have made even larger gains.
And with minority and low-income students disproportionately represented at for-profit and community colleges, which on average have worse graduation rates and other outcomes, those students have become far less likely to earn a degree: 82 percent of students from American families in the top income quartile ($80,000 or above) have at least a bachelor's degree, compared to about 8 percent of those from families in the bottom quartile ($25,000 a year or less).
"Unless we are prepared to argue that wealthy children are more than 10 times as smart as children of the poor, this is about as clear a signal as we have in our two education systems that something's going pretty seriously wrong," Haycock argued.
College administrators and faculty members are quick to attribute those sorts of results to two factors: "lousy high schools and stingy and immoral state and federal policy makers," Haycock said. "And the people who believe that are not all wrong," she conceded. Despite some recent progress in K-12 reform, large numbers of high school graduates emerge unprepared for college work. And federal and state policy makers are making more than their share of ill-advised decisions, Haycock said -- slashing spending on higher education at the state level, and considering cutting funds for Pell Grants for needy students while billions of dollars in college tax breaks for middle- and upper-income continue to flow.
"Yes, government policy, like [pre-college] preparation, is part of the problem ... impeding our ability to turn those patterns around," Haycock said. "But colleges and universities themselves are hugely important actors in this drama of shrinking opportunity as well."
She cited especially the sharp growth in the proportion of colleges' own financial aid funds that they distribute to students without financial need, and prices that are rising much faster than inflation, leaving many students unable to afford higher education.
Many college admissions officers are sympathetic to Haycock's view that institutional priorities have gotten out of whack, a fact that Haycock herself acknowledged with a reference to a recent report  from the University of Southern California's Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice that criticized many of the practices she cited.
But Haycock highlighted one line in the report that troubled her: "Every college and university works to fulfill its mission within constraints, yet those constraints nonetheless admit some space for moral action."
"Some space?" she asked the enrollment managers rhetorically. "Could we possibly enlarge the space for moral action? Why are we mostly thinking about immoral things rather than moral things?"
Haycock suggested several ways that enrollment managers themselves might be able to alter the current course. One is to strengthen their efforts to focus on making "student success an institution-wide priority," since Education Trust's data show that colleges with similarly qualified student bodies graduate them at very different rates. Another is to use the powerful analytic tools and services that many colleges now use to search for talented, full-tuition-paying students to hunt instead for promising students from low-income backgrounds.
But most of all, she exhorted them to use their influence within their institutions to advocate for admissions and financial aid policies that put equity at least alongside bottom-line concerns, if not above them.
"Way too many folks in higher ed are just going along. Don't just go along," she said. "Raise your voice."