How the Recession Re-Sorted Freshmen

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New-student enrollment rose during the first few years of the economic downturn, but the institutions they chose varied by region, a new report says.

A Better Way to Evaluate Colleges

Today, U.S. News & World Report will once again come out with its annual college rankings. Having worked as a college administrator my entire professional life, I often get questions about the usefulness of such rankings in the search process.

While rankings such as those published by U.S. News and World Report offer some useful data, I have developed a different set of five simple criteria or considerations for evaluating the value and for choosing one of the best educational experiences offered by our country’s 600 liberal arts colleges. Were I to provide counsel to parents of students interested in attending one of these colleges -- or to educators wondering how their institutions are doing -- here are five lines of questioning I’d suggest they pursue:

1. Has the institution’s faculty been granted a Phi Beta Kappa chapter? Founded in 1776, Phi Beta Kappa is the nation’s oldest and strongest academic honor society. Only those colleges or universities that meet the most rigorous academic standards are granted chapters. Criteria for membership include the number of volumes in the library, the number of faculty members who hold terminal (doctorate) degrees, and the number of faculty members who are members of Phi Beta Kappa. Membership in Phi Beta Kappa is an icon for maintaining a faculty of high caliber. Of the more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the country, only 270 -- 7 percent -- have been granted Phi Beta Kappa chapters. Other measures of academic quality include accreditations by national organizations, honors and awards received by faculty, and participation of students in undergraduate research and related regional and national competitions.

2. Has the college or university earned a favorable rating (A or better) by Moody’s Investors Service or another rating service such as Standard and Poor’s? Moody’s rates bonds issued to finance capital projects. Each series of bonds carries a different rating, but taken in aggregate, the bond ratings provide a meaningful and important gauge of institutional health. No institution can get an A or better rating if it does not have a history of balanced budgets. In Texas, for example, only five of our private colleges have an A or better rating from Moody’s as of June 2005. Bond ratings show financial strength in the way Phi Beta Kappa membership shows an institution’s academic strength. A good bond rating is an indication that an institution has the funding to sustain important academic programs. Other measures of financial health include the annual National Association of College and University Business Officers Endowment Survey and the college’s annual report, which should include a financial statement that shows expenditures for instruction, library and technology, scholarship, maintenance and construction as well as income from tuition, endowment, and gifts and grants.

3. Do graduates of the college earn predominantly Bachelor of Arts degrees? Bachelor of Arts degrees, which often require mastery of a foreign language, are the “union cards” for people who truly pursue undergraduate study in the liberal arts. Generally, it can be said that the higher the ratio of B.A. degrees to pre-professional degrees such as the B.B.A., the greater the college or university’s commitment to teaching. At the strongest liberal arts colleges and universities, at least 75 percent of the degrees awarded each year are B.A.'s as opposed to pre-professional degrees.

4. What percentage of students resides on campus? Living on campus is an important component of a student’s education, as it helps develop a sense of community and civic duty and provides a more complete living and learning environment. Campus residency leads students to participate in campus organizations where they learn valuable leadership and teamwork skills. Ideally, 80 percent or more of a campus’s full-time undergraduates should reside on campus to ensure a vibrant collegiate experience.

5. How diverse is the campus community? Diversity comes in many forms: racial/ethnic, gender, socio/economic, age, geographic, to name a few. A hallmark of a broad-based undergraduate education is consideration of a variety of perspectives based on the different experiences of diverse students and faculty. This type of rich and vibrant dialogue proves invaluable in students’ future professional, civic and personal lives. As a threshold, campus communities of students, faculty and staff should include 20 percent or more who represent populations other than its dominant majority.

I’m not saying that we should throw out rankings such as those compiled by U.S. News. An unfortunate characteristic of our society is that we always want to know who is No. 1 – whether it be in the classroom or on the football field. But the problem with rankings is that they encourage institutions that are uniquely different to change their programs in an attempt to improve their rankings. This doesn’t make sense for institutions that have specific missions that do not complement the rankings game.

For students who want to choose a great liberal arts college, I believe the above five questions are the ones that should be asked. You won’t find a college in America that meets these criteria and isn’t a great liberal arts college.

Jake B. Schrum
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Jake B. Schrum is president of Southwestern University, in Georgetown, Tex.

Saying No

If there's one thing I don't like about the first week of classes, it's the task of saying "no" over and over again.

Like many community colleges, mine has far more students than we have slots available in most of our classes. It's a very rare course where I am able to accept everyone who shows up the first day trying to "crash" a class. More often, as with the three classes I met on my first morning of teaching this semester, I have wait lists of one- or two-dozen for classes that typically  have a maximum of 40. I generally do lotteries for available seats, and ask all those not selected to leave.

I'd like to enroll everyone, of course, and be the "nice guy." But if I did that, I'd be left with a classroom too tightly packed for anyone to move, and in serious violation of city and state fire and safety codes. I'd also be overwhelmed with papers and tests and journals, and my grading load -- with seven courses a semester and no teaching assistants -- is already immense. So for reasons of both safety and sanity, I have had to get very good over the years at saying "no."

Students beg and plead and, invariably, explain why it is that without this particular class, their entire academic career will be ruined permanently and the dreams of their parents dashed. Some students get teary with frustration at the depressing process of huddling in doorways and squatting on floors and ingratiating themselves to be admitted to over-crowded classrooms. A few try flirtation or flattery; on one or two occasions long ago, various bribes were rather openly proffered -- and politely refused.

College administrators have told me, on more than one occasion, that professors are not to use any method other than random lotteries to choose students for available spaces.  Apparently, the concern is that if students are asked to write an essay, or demonstrate a high degree of need for the class, then professors open themselves up to charges of bias or favoritism. After all, we are not truly in a position to judge the actual needs of our students. It is axiomatic that each semester, I will hear, over and over again, “Professor, yours is the last class I need to transfer. If I don’t get in, I’ll be set back an entire semester.” Is it possible, even likely, that many of these students are telling the truth? Of course. Is it equally likely that some students are exaggerating? Yes. Is it part of my job to evaluate the veracity of their claims and the urgency of their need? I don’t think so.

I find that saying "no" to a student who wants to get into a class is much harder than saying "no" to a student who has asked me to rethink a deservedly poor grade. When I've assigned a low grade to sub-par work, I generally feel quite confident in my assessment of the student's product. But the way in which students get into classes seems so arbitrary (and unfair, as returning students get priority) that I have a hard time defending the system that leads to the composition of any particular class.  And yet, any system where I am called upon to make judgments about a student’s suitability for a particular course seems an even worse prospect.

It's no fun for the students to put themselves through this. I honor them for doing it. The smart ones continue to call and visit every day, hoping that some enrolled student has dropped and a space has been freed up. Often, but not always, I am able to accommodate them once students start to drop after the first week, but I won't do so if it means a dozen bodies on the floor and students barely able to breathe. (I tend to pace around while I teach, rather than cling to a podium; I need a bit of walking space!) I’m also aware that the college can get cited for safety code violations by the fire department if we overcrowd the classroom.

Two true lottery stories: One year, I had about two dozen names on a list for my women's studies course in which five spaces were available. There were perhaps 17 women and 7 men trying to get into the class; by strange chance, all five of the slips of paper I drew had men's names. It was completely random, but as one of those women who wasn't selected left, she muttered in disappointment, "God, even in a women's studies class I'm fucked over by men." Lots of people heard her, and it set an awkward tone for the remainder of the morning.

Another year, I had three spaces available on a lottery list for a modern Europe class; one of the women on the list (of some 15 hopefuls) was a very pretty, bubbly scantily-dressed blonde. Her name was the first name that appeared -- at random -- when I pulled slips of paper out of a manila envelope. After the class, two students who weren't selected publicly accused me of rigging the lottery to pick the "hot girl," and they complained to the dean. (Who laughed them out of her office; incidentally, the "hot girl" ended up one of the top students in that particular section.)

There’s little prospect of this over-crowding changing any time soon. Community colleges, at least here in California, have an open-admissions policy. The fact that a student has been admitted to the college does not guarantee a space in a single class. Invariably, that means that more students are enrolled in the college than we have classroom (or parking) space available. Students report that in many cases, their academic careers are extended by one or two years because they are unable to get into all the classes they need in a timely fashion. The obvious answer is that we need more professors, more courses, and more buildings in which to do our teaching. But until, by some budget miracle, all of those resources are available, I will continue to have to say “no” to the hopeful, the ambitious, and the deserving.

I'm not asking for pity, mind you; saying "no" and dealing with the justifiably frustrated and disappointed is part of the job description. But it's pretty damn near my least favorite part of what I do.

Hugo Schwyzer
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Hugo B. Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College. He teaches and blogs about such issues as the interplay of faith and sexuality, American history, and masculinity.

The Chosen Few

Jerome Karabel's The Chosen is the big meta-academic book of the season -- a scholarly epic reconstructing "the hidden history of admission and exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton," as the subtitle puts it. Karabel, who is a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, has fished documents out of the archive with the muckraking zeal worthy of an investigative journalist. And his book, published this month by Houghton Mifflin, is written in far brisker narrative prose than you might expect from somebody working in either sociology or education. That's not meant as a dis to those worthy fields. But in either, the emphasis on calibrating one's method does tend to make storytelling an afterthought.

For Karabel really does have a story to tell. The Chosen shows how the gentlemanly anti-Semitism of the early 20th century precipitated a deep shift in how the country's three most prestigious universities went about the self-appointed task of selecting and grooming an elite.

It is (every aspect of it, really) a touchy subject. The very title of the book is a kind of sucker-punch. It is an old anti-Jewish slur, of course. It's an allusion to Jehovah's selection of the Jews as the Chosen People, of course. It's also a term sometimes used, with a sarcastic tone, as an ethnic slur. But Karabel turns it back against the WASP establishment itself -- in ways too subtle, and certainly too well-researched, to be considered merely polemical. (I'm going to highlight some of the more rancor-inspiring implications below, but that is due to my lack of Professor Karabel's good manners.)

The element of exposé pretty much guarantees the book a readership among people fascinated or wounded by the American status system. Which is potentially, of course, a very large readership indeed. But "The Chosen" is also interesting as an example of sociology being done in almost classical vein. It is a study of what, almost a century ago, Vilfredo Pareto called "the circulation of elites" -- the process through which "the governing elite is always in a state of slow and continuous transformation ... never being today what it was yesterday."

In broad outline, the story goes something like this. Once upon a time, there were three old and distinguished universities on the east coast of the United States. The Big Three were each somewhat distinctive in character, but also prone to keeping an eye on one another's doings.

Harvard was the school with the most distinguished scholars on its faculty -- and it was also the scene of President Charles Eliot's daring experiment in letting undergraduates pick most of their courses as "electives." There were plenty of the "stupid young sons of the rich" on campus (as one member of the Board of Overseers put it in 1904), but the student body was also relatively diverse. At the other extreme, Princeton was the country club that F. Scott Fitzgerald later described in This Side of Paradise. (When asked how many students there were on campus, a Princeton administrator famously replied, "About 10 percent.")

Finally, there was Yale, which had crafted its institutional identity as an alternative to the regional provincialism of Harvard, or Princeton's warm bath of snobbery. It was "the one place where money makes no difference ... where you stand for what you are," in the words of the then-beloved college novel Dink Stover, about a clean-cut and charismatic Yalie.

But by World War One, something was menacing these idyllic institutions: Namely, immigration in general and "the Hebrew invasion" in particular. A meeting of New England deans in the spring of 1918 took this on directly. A large and growing percentage of incoming students were the bright and driven children of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. This was particularly true at Harvard, where almost a fifth of the freshman class that year was Jewish. A few years later, the figure would reach 13 percent at Yale -- and even at Princeton, the number of Jewish students had doubled its prewar level.

At the same time, the national discussion over immigration was being shaped by three prominent advocates of "scientific" racism who worried about the decline of America's Nordic stock. They were Madison Grant (Yale 1887), Henry Fairfield Osborne (Princeton 1877), and Lothrop Stoddard (Harvard 1905).

There was, in short, an air of crisis at the Big Three. Even the less robustly bigoted administrators worried about (as one Harvard official put it) "the disinclination, whether justified or not, on the part of non-Jewish students to be thrown into contact with so large a proportion of Jewish undergraduates."

Such, then, was the catalyst for the emergence, at each university, of an intricate and slightly preposterous set of formulae governing the admissions process. Academic performance (the strong point of the Jewish applicants) would be a factor -- but one strictly subordinated to a systematic effort to weigh "character."

That was an elusive quality, of course. But administrators knew when they saw it. Karabel describes the "typology" that Harvard used to make an initial characterization of applicants. The code system included the Boondocker ("unsophisticated rural background"), the Taconic ("culturally depressed background," "low income"), and the Krunch ("main strength is athletic," "prospective varsity athlete"). One student at Yale was selected over an applicant with a stronger record and higher exam scores because, as an administrator put it, "we just thought he was more of a guy."

Now, there is a case to be made for a certain degree of flexibility in admissions criteria. If anything, given our reflex-like tendency to see diversity as such as an intrinsic good, it seems counterintuitive to suggest otherwise. There might be some benefit to the devil's-advocate exercise of trying to imagine the case for strictly academic standards.

But Karabel's meticulous and exhaustive record of how the admissions process changed is not presented as an argument for that sort of meritocracy. First of all, it never prevailed to begin with.

A certain gentlemanly disdain for mere study was always part of the Big Three ethos. Nor had there ever been any risk that the dim sons of wealthy alumni would go without the benefits of a prestigious education.

What the convoluted new admissions algorithms did, rather, was permit the institutions to exercise a greater -- but also a more deftly concealed -- authority over the composition of the student body.

"The cornerstones of the new system were discretion and opacity," writes Karabel; "discretion so that gatekeepers would be free to do what they wished and opacity so that how they used their discretion would not be subject to public scrutiny.... Once this capacity to adapt was established, a new admissions regime was in place that was governed by what might be called the 'iron law of admissions': a university will retain a particular admissions policy only so long as it produces outcomes that correspond to perceived institutional interests."

That arrangement allowed for adaptation to social change -- not just by restricting applicants of one minority status in the 1920s, but by incorporating underrepresented students of other backgrounds later. But Karabel's analysis suggests that this had less to do with administratorsbeing "forward-looking and driven by high ideals" than it might appear.

"The Big Three," he writes, "were more often deeply conservative and surprisingly insecure about their status in the higher education pecking order.... Change, when it did come, almost always derived from one of two sources: the continuation of existing policies was believed to pose a threat either to vital institutional interests (above all, maintaining their competitive positions) or to the preservation of the social order of which they were an integral -- and privileged -- part."

Late in the book, Karabel quotes a blistering comment by the American Marxist economist Paul Sweezy (Exeter '27, Harvard '31, Harvard Ph.D. '37) who denounced C. Wright Mills for failing to grasp "the role of the preparatory schools and colleges as recruiters for the ruling class, sucking upwards the ablest elements of the lower classes." Universities such as the Big Three thus performed a double service to the order by "infusing new brains into the ruling class and weakening the potential leadership of the working class."

Undoubtedly so, once upon a time -- but today, perhaps, not so much. The neglect of their duties by the Big Three bourgeoisie is pretty clear from the statistics.

"By 2000," writes Karabel, "the cost of a year at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton had reached the staggering sum of more than $35,000 -- an amount that well under 10 percent of American families could afford....Yet at all three institutions, a majority of students were able to pay their expenses without financial assistance -- compelling testimony that, more than thirty years after the introduction of need-blind admissions, the Big Three continued to draw most of their students from the most affluent members of society." The number of students at the Big Three coming from families in the bottom half of the national income distribution averages out to about 10 percent.

All of which is (as the revolutionary orators used to say) no accident. It is in keeping with Karabel's analysis that the Big Three make only as many adjustments to their admissions criteria as they must to keep the status quo ante on track. Last year, in a speech at the American Council on Education, Harvard's president, Larry Summers, called for preferences for the economically disadvantaged. But in the absence of any strong political or social movement from below -- an active, noisy menace to business as usual -- it's hard to imagine an institutionalized preference for admitting students from working families into the Big Three. (This would have to include vigorous and fairly expensive campaigns of recruitment and retention.)

As Walter Benn Michaels writes in the latest issue of N+1 magazine, any discussion of class and elite education now is an exercise in the limits of the neoliberal imagination. (His essay was excerpted last weekend in the Ideas section of The Boston Globe.

"Where the old liberalism was interested in mitigating the inequalities produced by the free market," writes Michaels, " neoliberalism -- with its complete faith in the beneficence of the free market -- is interested instead in justifying them. And our schools have a crucial role to play in this. They have become our primary mechanism for convincing ourselves that poor people deserve their poverty, or, to put the point the other way around, they have become our primary mechanism for convincing rich people that we deserve our wealth."

How does this work? Well, it's no secret that going to the Big Three pays off. If, in theory, the door is open to anyone smart and energetic, then everything is fair, right? That's equality of opportunity. And if students at the Big Three then turn out to be drawn mainly from families earning more than $100,000 per year....

Well, life is unfair. But the system isn't.

"But the justification will only work," writes Michaels, if "there really are significant class differences at Harvard. If there really aren't -- if it's your wealth (or your family's wealth) that makes it possible for you to go to an elite school in the first place -- then, of course, the real source
of your success is not the fact that you went to an elite school but the fact that your parents were rich enough to give you the kind of preparation that got you admitted to the elite school. The function of the (very few) poor people at Harvard is to reassure the (very many) rich people at Harvard that you can't just buy your way into Harvard."

Scott McLemee
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We're All Getting Better

Universities celebrate their achievements in an endless series of public pronouncements. Like the imaginary residents of Lake Wobegon, all universities are above average, all are growing, and all improve. In most cases, these claims of progress rest on a technically accurate foundation:   Applications did increase, the average SAT scores did rise, the amount of financial aid did climb, private gifts did spike upward, and faculty research funding did grow.

No sensible friend of the institution wants to spoil the party by putting these data points of achievement into any kind of comparative context. There is little glory in a reality check.

Still, the overblown claims of achievement often leave audiences wondering how all these universities can be succeeding so well and at the same time appear before their donors and legislators, not to mention their students, in a permanent state of need. This leads to skepticism  and doubt, neither of which is good for the credibility of university people.  It also encourages trustees and others to have unrealistic expectations about the actual growth processes of their institutions.

For example, while applications at a given institution may be up, and everyone cheers, the total pool of applicants for all colleges and universities may be up also.  If a college's number for the years 1998 to 2002 is up by 10 percent, it may nonetheless have lost ground since the number of undergraduate students attending college nationally grew by 15 percent in the same period. Growth is surely better than decline, but growth relative to the marketplace for students signals real achievement.

Similar issues affect such markers as test scores. If SAT scores for the freshman class rise by eight points the admissions office should be pleased, but if nationally, among all students, test scores went up by nine points ( as they did between 1998 and 2004 ) the college may have lost ground relative to the marketplace.

An actual example with real data may help. Federal research expenditures provide a key indicator of competitive research performance. Universities usually report increases in this number with pride, and well they should because the competition is fierce. A quick look at the comparative numbers can give us a reality check on whether an increase actually represents an improvement relative to the marketplace. 

Research funding from federal sources is a marketplace of opportunity defined by the amount appropriated to the various federal agencies and the amount they made available to colleges and universities. The top academic institutions control about 90 percent of this pool and compete intensely among themselves for a share. This is the context for understanding the significance of an increase in federal research expenditures.

A review of the research performance of the top 150 institutions reporting federal research expenditures clarifies the meaning of the growth we all celebrate ( TheCenter, 2004). The total pool of dollars captured by these top competitors grew by about 14 percent from 2001 to 2002. While almost all institutions saw an increase in their research performance over this short time, a little over half (88 institutions) met or exceeded the growth of the pool. Almost all the others also increased their research expenditures, but even so, they lost market share to their colleagues in the top 150.

If we take a longer-range perspective, using the data between 1998 and 2002, the pool of funds spent from federal sources by our 150 institutions grew by 45 percent. For a university to keep pace, it would need to grow by 45 percent as well over the same period. Again, about half of our 150 institutions (80) managed to improve by at least this growth rate.  Almost all the remaining institutions also improved over this longer period, but not by enough to stay even with the growth of opportunity.

Even comparative data expressed in percentages can lead us into some confused thinking.  We can imagine that equal percentage growth makes us equally competitive with other universities that have the same percentage growth. This is a charming conceit, but misrepresents the difficulty of the competition.  

At the top of the competition, Johns Hopkins University would need to capture a sufficient increase in federal grants to generate additional spending of over $123 million a year just to stay even with the average total increase from 2001 to 2002 (it did better than that, with 16 percent growth). The No. 150 research university in 2001, the University of Central Florida, would need just over $3 million to meet the 14 percent increase in the total pool.  However, UCF did much better than that, growing by a significant 36 percent. 

Does this mean UCF is outperforming Hopkins? Of course not. JHU added $142 million to its expenditures while UCF added $7.6 million.  

The lesson here, as my colleague at the system office of the State University of New York, Betty Capaldi, reminded me when she suggested this topic, is that we cannot understand the significance of a growth number without placing it within an appropriate comparative context or understanding the relative significance of the growth reported.  

It may be too much to ask universities to clarify the public relations spin that informs their communications with the public, but people who manage on spin usually make the wrong choices.

John V. Lombardi
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Reforming Selective College Admissions

A friend who has been a high school counselor and college admissions officer for the past 25 years recently asked me how I would change selective college admissions practices. As the parent of two children who have played in the college admissions sweepstakes, the last in 2004-5, I found this request rather refreshing. Nobody ever asks parents, the people who pay the bills and bear ultimate responsibility for their children’s well-being, what they think of the current process. Nor, for that matter, do they appear to ask the students.

To the extent anyone in academe is talking about the scandalous commercialization of admissions and the consequent erosion of educational values and integrity, it seems to be the admissions community talking to itself. In this conversation, parents are sometimes viewed pejoratively as part of the problem -- or even worse, the cause of the problem.  

The stereotype condescendingly invoked is a classic of the psychobabble mode: neurotic, striving, over-involved Baby Boom parents mercilessly push their hapless children to achieve at ever higher levels so parents can validate themselves and their social status through their offsprings’ admission to prestigious colleges, preferably those very high in the U.S. News and World Report rankings. As with most stereotypes, this is a convenient and self-serving extrapolation from the behavior of a small group of people, designed to misrepresent, belittle and dismiss the larger group.

While there is certainly enough blame to go around for the current admissions frenzy, primary responsibility rests squarely with the colleges and universities, which seem unwilling to own up to the predictable consequences of their own behavior. To wit:

  • Colleges and universities cooperate with the superficial and methodologically dubious magazine rankings, in some cases to the extent of manipulating information to improve their profile. They often tout the rankings in their marketing materials as if the rankings actually mean something.
  • Colleges and universities stuff our mailboxes with expensive, glossy brochures and seemingly personalized letters inviting our children’s interest so they can increase applicant numbers, apparent selectivity and, not incidentally, rankings.
  • Colleges and universities are the members of the College Board, the multi-million dollar admissions testing and publication empire whose proprietary interest in the ubiquitous SAT I and SAT II tests would appear to be at odds with an objective evaluation of the educational value of such tests.  Not surprisingly, the College Board is headed by a former businessman and politician, not an educator.
  • Colleges and universities spend millions on enrollment management and marketing consulting firms. Some of these are enterprises large and influential enough to hold week-long national conferences to which admissions professionals flock in order to learn the latest strategems and techniques to sell their schools, attract customers, mold image, promote brand and increase yield.  The word “education” is noticeably absent from such activities.
  • Colleges and universities continue to use early decision, a  practice that is of no real value to students and survives because it functions so well to increase applicant “yield” (and rankings) in what some commentators have called the admissions “arms race.”  Even more reprehensibly, some colleges buy highly qualified students with “merit aid” in an attempt to improve their academic profile and ranking, remaking financial aid into a means of improving institutional image and undermining their responsibility as engines of opportunity for the poor and underclass.

Under these circumstances, when parents help their children game the selective college admissions system, they are exhibiting a perfectly rational response to a commercialized and manipulated process that is anything but transparent, not of their making, and not within their capacity to change. Baby Boomers, the most highly educated generation in history, learned well at their colleges and universities how to question, analyze and take action. They recognize a market when they see one. That they now bring these skills to bear on behalf of their children should surprise no one, least of all the institutions that educated them.  

However inequitable, unethical and psychologically questionable the use of test prep courses and tutors, college consultants, essay writers and editors, athletic consultants, and mammoth charitable contributions to influence admissions decisions may be -- and I personally object to all of them -- these products and practices are the predictable consequences of the marketplace of admissions that has been created by the academy. If colleges operate admissions on the market model, which is exactly what their enrollment management and marketing practices do, they should not be surprised if the morals of the market place prevail.

Most parents do not like the current admissions process and are concerned about its effects on their children. The increasing pressure to view high school as a mere staging area for college admission skews children’s intellectual and social development in ways that are not appealing. Nevertheless, selective colleges breathlessly tell us every year that their applicants are more “qualified” than ever. I cannot help wonder what that means. Does it actually translate into better students and better classrooms?  

Andrew Delbanco, a well-known professor of humanities at Columbia University, does not seem to think so. In a hard-hitting 2001 op-ed article in The New York Times, he wrote, “Every year I read that our incoming students have better grades and better SAT scores than in the past. But in the classroom, I do not find a commensurate increase in the number of students who are intellectually curious, adventurous or imbued with fruitful doubt. Many students are chronically stressed, grade-obsessed and, for fear of jeopardizing their ambitions, reluctant to explore subjects in which they doubt their proficiency.” Surely, these are not the qualities we want in our students or our children, but current admissions practices have the consequence of rewarding them.

Pushing Back

Some parents are rebelling. An iconoclastic couple I know, for example, are minimizing the effects of the college admissions process on their child’s high school education. They sacrifice to send their child to a highly regarded Eastern prep school and do not want preoccupation with college admissions to dilute the superlative educational opportunities they are dearly paying for. So, rather than spending junior year searching for colleges, visiting colleges, testing for colleges and preparing to apply to colleges, and senior year applying to colleges, interviewing at colleges, nervously waiting to hear from colleges and recovering from applying to colleges, their child is postponing applying to college until she takes a gap year after high school. They are negotiating with the school to provide its usual level of college counseling during the gap year, so their child can concentrate on getting a fine high school education for four full years.  

So, what would I ask selective colleges and universities to change about the admissions process?  A lot.

(1) Adopt a policy that your institutions will not provide information to or cooperate in any way with the rankings done by U.S. News & World Report or any other publication and publicly state that such rankings are unreliable and uninformative as guides for college selection, college admission or any other purpose. In an enlightening article, “Is There Life After Rankings?”  in the November 2005 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Colin Diver, president of Reed College, described what happened when Reed declined to cooperate with the annual peer evaluations and statistical surveys that U.S. News uses to compile its rankings. Reed asked the editors of U.S. News to simply omit Reed from its listings. Instead, the editors arbitrarily assigned the lowest possible value to all of Reed’s missing variables, resulting in a precipitous drop in Reed’s ranking. After an outcry about this rather retaliatory action by U.S. News, it switched to basing its ranking of Reed on “published” data sources, and Reed recovered some of its ranking decline. But since much of the information required to complete the magazine’s ranking formula is unpublished, who knows how the U.S. News editors arrive at these values for Reed.  

The good news for the college is that despite not cooperating with the tyranny of rankings for the past 10 years, the number of applications for admission is up significantly as is the quality of applicants, as indicated by conventional measures as well as Reed’s own internal assessments. As important, Reed has continued to offer an academic program that is widely recognized for its integrity, rigor and student involvement and achievement. So, concludes President Diver, there is life after rankings because, “Participants in the higher education marketplace are still looking primarily for academic integrity and quality, not the superficial prestige conferred by commercial rankings.” Amen. In my dreams I see the presidents of Harvard, Yale and Princeton announcing they will not cooperate with the magazine rankings;  and, when HYP fall in the U.S. News rankings as Reed did, the credibility of the ranksters is destroyed, magazine sales plummet, and the rankings house of cards collapses.

(2) Work on a way to provide more meaningful comparative information about your schools.  The National Survey of Student Engagement sounds like an intriguing start.

(3) Discontinue mass mailing of marketing materials to prospective applicants. Parents and students consider them “junk mail,” are skeptical, if not cynical, about the information contained in them, if they read them at all, and are not influenced by them. Many parents think that such crass marketing is unseemly for academic institutions. Discontinue mailing those seemingly personalized letters to high scorers on the PSAT and PLAN; they are misleading and self-serving. Redeploy the funds spent on marketing mailings for targeted efforts to recruit worthy students from economically marginal or deprived backgrounds, or – what a concept -- use these funds to reduce tuition across the board. 

(4) Abolish early decision. Consider all applicants for admission at one time. Everyone knows ED applicants are admitted at higher rates, and nobody believes the often-proffered explanation that this is because the early applicant pool is stronger. The consequence of early decision is that the college admissions process starts earlier and earlier in high school, diverting students’ attention from true intellectual growth, diluting their willingness to take intellectual risks and causing them to view high school as an exercise in sculpting a college admissions resume. Inevitably, the ubiquitous early decision system tacitly encourages students to apply early to “game the system,” even if they are unsure of the choice.  

(5) Abolish use of the “academic index” (and similar numerical calculations). This gives undue weight to college admissions tests (fueling the test prep mania), and reduces an entire high school transcript to one number. It causes applicants and parents to disbelieve admissions officials’ claims that every application is “carefully considered.”

(6) Discontinue “merit aid.” Instead, work on providing more need-based financial aid, including to the financially strapped middle class, and on decreasing the debt burden for financial aid students. 

(7) Disclose on the admissions section of the college’s Web site how, specifically, review of applications is conducted, as well as those groups that will be given special consideration for admission, all other things being equal. These may, of course, change somewhat from year to year. Be honest and open about what you are doing. Applicants and their parents think admissions offices have hidden agendas. This creates the kind of paranoia that fuels the industry that has grown up around getting “inside information” and “gaming the system.” Sunshine on the admissions process will help disarm the college consulting industry.

(8) Adopt a policy that applicants who take the SAT, ACT or any SAT subject test more than twice will not be considered for admission. We all agree that students have better things to do with their time than become serial standardized test takers. This policy would send a strong message that you want them to do those better things.

(9) Require applicants and their parents to sign a statement that discloses any paid services used to prepare for college admissions tests or to advise on or help prepare the college application.  False statements will result in automatic denial of admission. Yes, I know that some people will lie. But most will not, and you will send a clear message that you are on to the game and that the ability to buy such services will not help in admission.

(10) Revise the Common Application to eliminate essay questions. Instead, have a personal essay administered by the College Board, or other testing organization, in a controlled environment, written in the student’s own hand, and forwarded to the colleges to which the student applies. Students should be given ample time for this exercise and be required to do a draft and final copy. The choice of questions would vary from year to year. In addition, require, as some colleges currently do, that students submit a short high school paper graded by a faculty member. This combination of writing samples would provide a more accurate picture of the student and his or her abilities than the current corrupted essay process.   

I have, of course, been told by jaded parents and admissions veterans alike that hell will freeze over before selective colleges reform their admissions practices, particularly since demographers predict a coming drop in the size of the applicant pool, which will increase competition for qualified applicants and encourage even more marketing and enrollment management. There are, thankfully, some countervailing forces: The work of the Education Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that encourages changes in the college admissions process to put students and educational values foremost, has the support of some courageous admissions professionals and gives me hope.

What is still missing is strong, publicly articulated leadership on admissions reform from the presidents of the country’s most-admired colleges and universities. As I said, in my dreams… 

Deirdre Henderson
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Deirdre Henderson is a mother and lawyer who lives in upstate New York.

The Wrong Conversation

The annual college-admissions tournament is in full swing, encouraged by newspapers and magazines that have made a good business of promoting status anxiety among parents and students by touting the latest rankings and secrets of Ivy League admissions offices. But in reality, the universe of students with the luxury of being overwhelmed by long application forms, AP courses, extracurricular activities, and grueling SAT-prep classes is small: Only 11 percent of college-bound seniors enroll at institutions that reject a majority of their applicants. For most students, the hard part of college isn’t getting in -- it’s getting out.

The numbers are stark: Only 37 percent of college students graduate in four years, less than two-thirds finish in six. For low-income and minority students, graduation rates are even worse. This is happening at the worst possible moment in history -- the market for unskilled labor has already gone global and higher-skill jobs aren’t far behind. We aren’t going to be bigger or cheaper than our Chinese and Indian competitors in the 21st century; our only option is to be smarter. Yet we’re squandering the aspirations and talent of hundreds of thousands of college students every year.

Clearly, major changes are needed.

We can start by restructuring high schools, which continue to act as if most students don’t go to college when in fact most of them do. Two-thirds of high school graduates enter postsecondary education soon after graduation, and more than 80 percent matriculate by their mid-20s. But many arrive unaware that their high school diploma doesn’t mean they’re ready for college work. Far from it. More than 25 percent of college freshmen have to take remedial courses in basic reading, writing, or math -- victims of high schools that systematically fail to enroll many of their college-bound students in college-prep classes.  

It’s true that many students arrive in high school behind academically, but high schools need to buckle down and prepare them for college anyway because that’s where they’re going, ready or not. College-prep curricula should be the norm unless students and parents decide otherwise.    

We also need to make college more affordable for first-generation college students at the greatest risk of dropping out. We’ve been losing ground here in recent years -- federal Pell Grants pay a far smaller portion of college costs than they once did, while states and institutions are shifting many of their student-aid dollars to so-called “merit” programs that mostly benefit middle-and upper-income families. Meanwhile, the ongoing erosion of state funding for public colleges and universities, combined with the unwillingness of those institutions to look hard at becoming more efficient, has produced huge increases in tuition.  

As a result, low-income college students have an unpleasant choice: Take out massive student loans that greatly limit their options after graduation, or work full-time while they’re in school, and thereby greatly decrease their odds of graduating. In addition to a renewed federal commitment to college affordability, state lawmakers should resist the urge to pour vast amounts of money into need-blind merit aid programs. And institutions should think twice before taking the advice of for-profit "enrollment management" consultants who counsel reducing aid to the low-income students who need it most.

We need to get serious about creating universities that are actually designed to educate undergraduates successfully. Many institutions are far too concerned with status, research, athletics, fundraising -- almost everything except the quality of undergraduate education. Yet research has shown that those institutions that truly focus on high-quality instruction, combined with guidance and support in the critical freshmen year, have much higher graduation rates than their peers. Our colleges need to be held more accountable for the things that matter most: teaching their students well and helping as many as possible earn a degree.

The education secretary's commission appears poised to put higher education accountability squarely on the national agenda. That's a good thing. But the panel's proposal shouldn't focus on a No Child Left Behind-style top-down system based exclusively on standardized tests, government-defined performance goals, and mandated interventions. Rather, the panel should pursue accountability through transparency, mandating a major expansion of the performance data universities are required to create and report to students, parents, and the public at large.

Finally, the media should look beyond their own lives and aspirations when they shape the public perception of higher education and the admissions process. Caught up in the same status competition they help perpetuate, many simply don’t realize how many college students arrive unprepared, struggle financially, and never finish a degree. For the vast majority of students, and for the nation as a whole, the stakes are far higher than who gets into which Ivy League institution.

Kevin Carey
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Kevin Carey is policy and research director at Education Sector, a think tank.

Counting Students

Paula M. Krebs has been a professor of English at Wheaton College, a selective New England liberal arts college, for 15 years. Her sister Mary Krebs Flaherty teaches writing as an adjunct at the inner-city campus of Camden County College, a two-year institution. They are writing a series of articles about what it’s like to teach English at their respective institutions.

Mary: I took spring break week off from my 9-5 job at Rutgers as well as my adjunct teaching and my night class, and I spent it reading, resting, and relaxing. But as soon as I got back, I noticed a lot of students missing for our first class.  So I did a head count of the number of students who showed up -- 11 out of 22. Where was everybody? I waited an entire week -- three classes -- and the same 11 students showed up. I think to myself, "Can students actually believe that they can pass a class without showing up?" I log onto Web Advisor (Camden County College's administrative Web site) to see if they have dropped the course -- and only two of them have officially dropped! Then, as if by fate, I ran into one of the students who officially dropped my class and I asked her why she dropped. She replied that she has two young children and she was finding it too hard to arrive on campus by 9 a.m., so she withdrew and plans to take a late morning class in the fall. But this leaves unanswered questions about the students who are just not showing up. Are they not interested in finishing the course? Are they not interested in my class or school entirely? And most importantly, how can I get them back into my classroom?

Paula: That is so not my problem this semester!  I started with 51 students in my Victorian class, and I was praying for it to shrink. One reason is the U.S. News & World Report college guide statistics. We lose points for classes over 50 -- even if there are only 51 in the class. So it was a good result the day I dropped to 49 in that class. Now I’m down to 47 and I am not the least bit interested in why the students dropped or in getting them back into English courses. If it’s not their cup of tea, that’s fine. It would be a different matter if it meant they might be dropping out of school entirely. With your teaching, so much hinges on keeping them in the class -- students’ futures are at stake. That’s the difference between our institutions but also the difference between our courses. Teaching literature is lovely. It opens up minds, and it pushes students outside their own perspectives in wonderful ways; I wouldn’t give it up. But teaching writing, especially teaching writing the way you do and where you do, can change lives.

Mary: Stop scaring me! That's what bothers me the most -- I know the magnitude of the importance of education in these students' lives, but I can't make them come to class. I know that some of their excuses are sometimes just that -- lame excuses. But for the other students, like the one I ran in to, their issues are real. I contacted the program director to ask her about my retention rate this semester and she advised me that the spring semester is problematic for retention. She also said that retention problems for Camden County students could be caused by numerous reasons, among them are that some of these students lack the support, commitment, or confidence to make college their first priority.

Paula: Well, I had a conversation with a student of mine today that could have been a conversation with a student of yours, I think. She’s a second-semester first-year student, living at home (itself highly unusual at Wheaton, where something like 95 percent of our students live on campus), working to help pay the family bills since her parents broke up and her dad lost his job. Whereas you worry about your students sticking it out at Camden County, I found myself advising this student to get the heck out of Wheaton. We don’t have the kind of financial resources that would allow us to give a student like this one the financial aid she’d need to stay here once her home support has fallen apart. I could just picture her trying to support her dad and brother on three or four summer jobs, all the while accumulating massive student loan debt. It does not make sense for her. I’m a huge believer in a liberal arts education, but I think she could get a very good liberal arts education at a place that could get her through more cheaply, and that needs to be a priority for her now. It’s different at your place, where the only option for someone like her would be to drop out entirely.

Mary: It's an ominous choice, though, isn't it? Maybe that explains why I still have 20 people on my roster and only 11 or 12 showing up to class -- they just can't bear the finality of dropping out. Or another explanation -- which I think may be more likely -- is that these students don't know how to withdraw or ask for help because, as the director of the program pointed out, they lack the necessary support. I don't think she's referring to financial support; it's more personal and familial for these students. Most of my students do not have parents or siblings who graduated college, and therefore they are in a totally different world with no assistance from family members.

Paula: That seems like a real issue -- you can make help available, but you can’t manufacture the conditions under which students can take advantage of it. A student whose family members are used to depending on each other, who has never sought help through an institutional structure, may not know how to do it. She might not know how to walk into the financial aid office or the counseling center or even the advising office and say, “I’m lost. My life is out of control, and I don’t know what to do about my classes.” And the longer they delay seeking help, the more things spiral out of control. And how can you, an adjunct instructor, know how to find them so they can get the help they need?

Mary: That brings me back to my issue with computers, or my students' lack of computers at home. After many of my students did not show up for a week after spring break, I used the e-mail addresses that were on the Web Advisor program to try to contact them and encourage them to come back to class. Out of the eight e-mails I sent out, six came back undeliverable. The two who actually received the e-mail opened it when they came back to class and logged into their e-mails from the classroom workstations! Obviously the e-mail approach doesn't work too well. Similarly, the phone numbers listed on the student handout sheets from the college are also outdated. The college does have a Student Support Service office, but they do not have the resources to track students down. If the students do come back to class, I work with them as much as possible to help them catch up. But the ones who don’t come back or seek help may not make it, and to me that is devastating. I think I’d better learn not to take this as a personal failure, or my teaching career may fizzle before it starts.

Paula M. Krebs and Mary Krebs Flaherty
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The previous column by Paula M. Krebs and Mary Krebs Flaherty explored expectations of students.

Making Opportunity Real

The sources of unequal college opportunity in the United States run deep.

Finding effective ways to act is a matter of growing urgency and importance. There is every reason to think that success in higher education will become continually more critical for individual success in our economy and society. And a well-educated populace seems indispensable for a healthy and flourishing society in this new century, both in economic and in civic terms. For Americans to tolerate an educational system that poorly serves a significant segment of the population -- especially a segment disproportionately composed of the children of the economically disadvantaged and of persons of color -- is morally unacceptable in its own right, and it threatens to become a source of larger social failures in the decades ahead.

One of the big challenges to acting effectively is our knowledge that educational failures at any one life stage can often be traced back to earlier stages, all the way back to preschool and to home and community life in the earliest years. It is tempting then to argue that, for example, rather than "wasting time" on remediation in college, we should "fix" the high schools and get it right the first time, and likewise that the high schools can't do much if their students have not learned to read and calculate in elementary school, and so on. The fundamentally sound idea of success building on success has  many analysts to argue, quite persuasively, for the importance of investments in high-quality daycare and preschool education. It's possible abstractly to imagine a sort of perfectly ordered world in which great preschools were followed by strong elementary schools, then high schools, and on to excellent colleges from which in 20 or 25 years a much better and more equally educated generation of young adults would emerge -- just start with the next generation of newborns and work from there.

Yet, while it is a good idea to keep that kind of long-run vision before us as we go about the current business of reform, it is obviously unacceptable to simply write off all the young people living right now for whom improved preschool simply comes too late. Even if that were somehow tolerable, a second problem bedevils this approach as well. There is considerable evidence that one of the human activities that improves with better education is parenting, and there is evidence that the quality and character of home life in a child's early years importantly influence his or her later educational success. Thus investing now in the education of future parents should be part of any comprehensive long-run strategy for improving educational opportunity and outcomes in future generations. After Bill Bowen and Derek Bok published their powerful study, The Shape of the River, showing the positive effects of affirmative action in college admissions, some critics said that the real challenge was to address the failings of the public schools, not make up for those failings through affirmative action in college. As Bill Bowen said at the time: "We do not have to choose; we have two hands."

So, rather than waiting for educational reform at earlier ages to somehow overcome inequalities, we think that colleges, and those who shape government policies toward college education, need to find effective ways to act now in the face of the very large inequalities in college access and opportunity they currently face.

What colleges can reasonably do depends very heavily on how they are situated. While a minority of college students attend colleges and universities that select enrollees from a broad pool of applicants, the majority are at places where all or most of the students who apply are admitted. It is the former group that can practice racial affirmative action in admissions and may also consider "economic" affirmative action -- the "thumb on the scale" advocated in Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education. Even within that selective group only a relative handful are likely to have adequate resources to expand their admission of low-income applicants significantly. (Even among selective colleges, the majority turn down some otherwise qualified applicants because the colleges want to avoid the financial aid costs of their enrollment.)

It is our strong sense that those selective colleges and universities with the capacity to enroll more low-income students should do so, a step made all the more important by the fact that these institutions are widely seen as America's higher education leaders. There is a large pool of low-income students who have the level of academic preparation needed for success at these places.

We do not at all wish to imply that those institutions that lack the resources or the selectivity to practice "economic affirmative action" are "off the hook" in regard to addressing the needs of low-income students. Indeed, it is at these less affluent and less selective colleges and universities that most low-income students can be found. A major contribution these institutions can make is to find ways to help more of their disadvantaged students make a success of their college efforts. We know that low-income students who start college are less likely than others to complete their studies. This outcome is caused by some combination of inadequate academic preparation, financial shortfalls, and personal and cultural difficulties that colleges need to understand better and devise more effective ways to address. There is also a need to understand when and how remediation works for students in college and how to make it work better.

Colleges should also be "on the hook" for working more effectively with secondary school systems to make sure that schools understand and communicate to their students what kind of preparation is needed for college success. What it takes to graduate from high school or to be admitted to college is only distantly related to the kind of preparation needed to succeed in a college environment. Aligning standards and then, importantly, offering educational programs that will enable students to meet those standards are much needed.

We hear heartening evidence that at least a good many colleges take the problem of improving low-income access and success seriously and want to devise ways to address the challenges they face. At the same time, there are severe limits on what individual colleges, acting separately, can do to address the underlying problems. Some such challenges can be tackled by colleges themselves acting collectively through their associations and consortia. Collective efforts to communicate with high school students and their families about preparing for college and about how to pay for it, like the American Council on Education's "College Is Possible" campaign, are examples. Some observers have argued that there is potential for making these efforts substantially more effective by basing them on a more systematic study of what families know and how they learn about colleges." It would also be desirable for colleges to do more to cooperate in putting their financial aid dollars where they would do the most good, although that probably cannot be done without affording the colleges some protection from antitrust prosecution.

A major constraint on what both individual colleges and cooperating groups of colleges can do about low-income access is money. The influence of family resources on college-going decisions is exerted through multiple channels. Possibly the biggest influence is through the fact that families with less income and wealth are not able to devote as many educational resources to their children from an early age as more affluent families can, with the result that their children are on average less well prepared academically for college. Low-income families are also often less well equipped to navigate the complex and disjointed systems by which financial aid for college is provided, even as they are more dependent on its assistance.

But there is also reason to believe that money still matters in college access in the straightforward sense that low-income families struggle to pay the bills. Studies that attempt to control for the influence of factors like academic preparation and parental education still find that money matters significantly in influencing college attendance. Federal loan limits for undergraduates have not been raised in over a decade, and the value of the maximum Pell Grant is substantially lower now as a fraction of college tuition than it was in the mid-1970s. Particularly for students whose best educational option is a four-year college or university away from home, financial constraints can be very real. Moreover, it is very hard, given the way financial aid works now, for a family to look ahead when their child is 10 or 13 years old and see with any clarity how college will be paid for. This fact can be a serious discouragement to making the key choices in middle school and high school that will make success in college feasible.

These are not problems that colleges and universities, public or private, can overcome on their own. They must be addressed through public policy, principally at state and federal levels. Some of what is needed might be accomplished through more purposeful use of existing public resources. A significant fraction of state government subsidies, for example, goes to reduce the tuition paid by affluent families who could readily pay more. But there is also a case for expanding federal and state commitments to helping low-income people finance their college education.

This doesn't have to mean simply putting more money into existing programs like Pell. There is much to be said for exploring innovative policies that will involve a simpler, more understandable delivery of benefits, that will encourage advance planning and solid academic preparation in high school, and that will have a broader political base than the narrowly targeted Pell program.

The good news is that there is plenty of work to go around. Well-endowed selective colleges and universities can exert a leading role by expanding their representation of disadvantaged students. The broad-access institutions that now enroll most low-income students can develop programs to foster their success in college and work with high schools to send clearer messages about what is needed for academic success in college. And policymakers in state and federal governments can work to use existing resources more effectively while also making commitments to expanded and improved programs to make a good college experience a realistic option for all who qualify. Do what you can with what you have where you are.

Michael S. McPherson and Morton Owen Schapiro
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Michael S. McPherson is president of the Spencer Foundation and former president of Macalester College. Morton Owen Schapiro is president of Williams College. They are the editors of College Access: Opportunity or Privilege?, a volume of essays being released today by the College Board, and from which this essay is adapted.

The Geography of Educational Segregation



Every December, highly educated young people load up their Toyotas and hop on airplanes to spend the holidays with their families. This year was no exception. For a week or two, libraries and laboratories across the country went quiet. The lights went off in Manhattan editorial offices and advertising agencies; Washington’s government bureaucracies ground to a halt; and Northern California’s venture capital firms and tech companies stopped making deals. At the same time, business picked up at small-town bars and breakfast joints across the country, as all of those academics, editors, lawyers, and engineers reconnected with their families and scattered high school classmates.

I used to think of the holiday season -- with its cloying carols, crowded sidewalks, and inevitable sugar headaches -- as an annual nightmare. But these days, my view of the season has shifted. While I’m still not a fan, I’ve come to appreciate how Christmas temporarily desegregates the American population.

That’s a statement that needs some explanation. “Segregation” is intimately tied to race in American vocabulary, but race is not the only way in which America is segregated. In fact, over the last several decades, residential racial segregation -- the tendency of African-American and white families to live in the same neighborhood -- has declined substantially. That doesn’t mean that spatial inequalities have disappeared. Despite the progress that we’ve made, many cities remain highly racially segregated. Despite the progress that we’ve made on racial desegregation, economic segregation -- poor and affluent families’ propensity to live near one another -- hasn’t budged. Furthermore, during the last few decades a whole new form of residential segregation has emerged. I call it educational segregation: College graduates have become increasingly clustered in a handful of places, while large swathes of America experience a long, drawn-out brain drain.

This is the form of segregation that I have in mind when I say that the holidays temporarily desegregate the American population. Every December, holiday cheer pushes young college graduates out of America’s creative cities and college towns and back to their hometowns across the country.

Much of my research has been dedicated to documenting educational segregation. My interest has autobiographical roots. I was born and raised in Madison County, Nebraska (where 17 percent of adults had a B.A. or higher degree in 2000). Like most of my friends, I always knew that success meant leaving town, and that’s exactly what I did. I went to college in central Connecticut (where 34 percent of adults held B.A.'s) and graduate school in Manhattan (the 13th most highly educated county in the U.S., with a B.A. concentration of 49 percent). My current gig has me living in a faculty ghetto in central New Jersey (where each and every one of my neighbors has a postgraduate degree). But I’m a social scientist, not a memoirist, and I’m primarily interested in the ways in which educational segregation shapes inequality and opportunity in American life. My research suggests that educationally selective migration is fundamentally altering America’s social geography, and that this change has consequences that we are only beginning to understand.

Some of these consequences are positive. Economic research provides strong evidence to suggest that the spatial concentration of human capital stimulates economic growth. As anybody who has ever had a successful collaboration with the colleague down the hall can tell you, causal conversation over the coffee machine can often lead to real breakthroughs. Turns out, the same thing happens in regional economics. When smart people cluster together, innovation occurs, productivity rises, and growth occurs. This is undoubtedly a good thing. Thanks to educational segregation, the cities and college towns in which many of us live have become bright spots in the American economy. And even those of us who live outside these bright spots benefit to some extent from advances that take place when highly educated people rub shoulders.

But educational segregation is a zero-sum game. For every booming human capital hub, there are dozens of brain drain communities, and for these communities educational segregation can be disastrous. While brain drain is not exclusively a rural phenomenon, the picture is particularly bleak for rural America. In any given year, more than 6 percent of America’s non-metropolitan B.A. holders migrate to a metropolitan area. Economic growth has stalled in these brain drain communities. In the worst cases, communities are left with insufficient medical care and limited educational opportunities, as they find themselves unable to replace retiring small-town doctors and teachers. There’s no reason why college graduates need to be distributed equally across the United States. But deepening educational segregation closes off opportunities for people born into brain drain communities, creating new social and economic inequalities.

So how do we break the vicious cycle of educational segregation or at least mitigate its worse consequences? I’m generally a big believer in the transformative power of education, but for all the benefits that college-goers get from higher education, state investments in higher education don’t do much to keep talent in brain drain communities. Since human capital is mobile, places can’t educate their way out of educational segregation. The nation’s two most highly educated states -- Connecticut and Massachusetts -- rank 33th and 48th respectively on per capita higher education funding. And all but two of the of the 10 states that spent the most per capita on higher education in the early 1990s experienced net brain drain between 1990 and 2000. In a sense, by putting money into public higher education, my home state of Nebraska is underwriting the out-migration of its most talented young people and subsidizing economic growth in the places they end up.

Economist Richard Florida advocates a “creative cities” approach, urging communities on the losing end of educational segregation to cultivate the cultural amenities and social tolerance that highly educated youth value. This advice turns the common-sense logic of regional economic planning on its head. While planners have traditionally focused on getting businesses to locate in their communities, reasoning that jobs will attract workers; Florida has been convincing planners to focus their attention on attracting the highly-educated “creative class”, arguing that these workers make jobs for themselves and others. Based on the Florida model, the city of Memphis is busily organizing arts festivals and rezoning neighborhoods to allow sidewalk cafes in an attempt to attract highly educated migrants and stimulate economic growth. This effort is almost certainly better than nothing, but my research suggests that neither amenities nor jobs attract college graduates to human capital hubs. The big lure is the presence of other college graduates. Furthermore, even if Memphis does manage to make itself a human capital hub, chances are it’ll be snatching its college graduates from the surrounding countryside, not New York, Washington, or Raleigh-Durham. Building new creative cities may only aggravate educational segregation overall.

A third approach leverages student financial aid incentives to slow brain drain. With college tuition growing at a rate that outpaces both inflation and the availability of financial aid, and student loan programs rapidly replacing grant programs, several states successfully used student debt relief programs to fill local occupational shortages. But recently, policy-makers have become more ambitious with these plans. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has proposed a merit-based scholarship program that would give high-achieving Indiana high school graduates $20,000 a year for tuition and living expenses, as long as they promised to stay in the state for three years after graduation. U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), meanwhile, thinks that slowing brain drain is the federal government’s job. Under his New Homestead Act, the government would pay off college loans, provide tax credits, mortgage assistance, and business start-up funds for people who settle in depopulating rural counties.

There’s definitely an element of pork-barrel politics to Dorgan’s New Homestead Act. But short of declaring every day Christmas, it strikes me as our best available approach to slowing educational segregation. The problems associated with uneven talent flows are best addressed at the federal level, rather than the state level. Brain drain states’ educational investments subsidize growth in brain gain states, so it seems only fair that brain drain communities should help solve the problems that educational segregation creates. The New Homestead Act’s incentives probably aren’t enough to reverse educational segregation trends. (After all, how many 22-year-olds decide where to live based on their marginal income tax rate?) But for young adults who are committed to staying their hometowns, but wonder what good a college education can do them there, the New Homestead Act would be a boon, likely raising educational attainment rates and helping brain drain communities hold onto local talent. If we care about equality of opportunity in America, those are both important things to do.

Thurston Domina
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Thurston Domina is a research associate at the Office of Population Research at Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. in sociology last year from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and is currently hunting for a tenure track job in a place with plenty of sidewalk cafes. 


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