Colleges and universities are supposed to be engines of social mobility where smart students from poor families get ahead based on their hard work, persistence and abilities. It’s sad that many colleges have lost their way and are primarily admitting students already destined for success because of their wealth and family connections.

Too often, money outweighs grades, test scores and resilience in determining the future of talented young people. One of the best predictors of how far children will go in school in America today is the wealth of their families.

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No matter how smart they are, children who grow up with modest means are at a huge disadvantage in the competition for admission to college, particularly elite colleges. In fact, a 2014 White House report found that while 50 percent of the sons and daughters of wealthy families have a bachelor’s degree by age 25, only 10 percent of the children of poor families do. This is not because having more money makes you smarter.

This unfair poverty penalty affects the career options of bright young people for their entire lives, and can turn poverty into an inherited condition. The declining social mobility in this country and the frustration at the ballot box that we have seen in this political season are a sad testament to the truth of this statement.

But income-driven educational inequality does not have to stay with us for all time. Some colleges and universities are taking bold steps to open up educational opportunity to all, regardless of income.

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, where I am executive director, recently gave Amherst College in Massachusetts a $1 million prize for its impressive record of admitting, supporting and graduating outstanding low-income students. The Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence is the largest award given to an elite college for eliminating arbitrary barriers to admission and promoting the success of high-achieving students from low-income families.

Amherst will use the $1 million from the Cooke Prize for financial aid, aggressive national recruitment strategies and counseling for low-income students to insure it has an environment where these students thrive.

A total of 58 percent of Amherst students today receive need-based financial aid. The college does not provide any so-called “merit aid,” which many colleges use to attract wealthier students. Amherst’s percentage of low-income students receiving federal Pell Grants has risen from about 15 percent in 2006-07 to nearly 25 percent in the current academic year.

In sharp contrast to Amherst, a recent study by the Cooke Foundation found that only 3 percent of students at top colleges across the nation come from the poorest 25 percent of families. But 72 percent come from the wealthiest quarter of families.

A college degree should be a ticket out of poverty. The U.S. Education Department reported in 2015 that people with a four-year college degree typically earn 66 percent more than those with only a high school diploma. The department found that someone with a bachelor’s degree will on average earn about $1 million more over the course of a lifetime than someone without a postsecondary education.

In addition, more and more jobs require a college degree. We need to do everything we can – as Amherst is doing – to insure that smart low-income students have the chance to fight their way out of poverty.

Amherst is not the only school to make great strides in opening its doors to outstanding low-income students. Other finalists for the Cooke Prize this year were: Davidson College in North Carolina; Pomona College in California; Rice University in Texas; and Stanford University in California. Last year’s Cooke Prize went to Vassar College in New York.

The success of these selective colleges in promoting equal educational opportunity must be replicated by others. Colleges need to act on many fronts. They need to encourage more high-achieving students from low-income families to apply, end the practice of giving an admissions preference to the children of alumni, increase financial aid for students with financial need over merit aid, and provide counseling to help low-income students acclimate to academia and succeed.

Above all, colleges should make socioeconomic diversity a major priority. This is not a call to reduce standards. Colleges should recognize that students who have succeeded at a high level in high school and community colleges despite the many obstacles poverty throws in front of them are capable of succeeding at colleges and universities where they have rarely been admitted in the past.

Achievement in college should not be premised on an educational caste system based on income.


Former New York City Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy is executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which has awarded about $147 million in scholarships to more than 2,000 high-achieving students from low-income families and $90 million in grants to organizations that serve such students.