Jack Kent Cooke Foundation: Elite Schools Should Do More To Recruit Qualified Low-Income Students

Posted By Candace Talmadge on July 13, 2016 at 7:35 am
Jack Kent Cooke Foundation: Elite Schools Should Do More To Recruit Qualified Low-Income Students

Although the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the University of Texas’s race-based admissions criteria, a charity dedicated to providing higher education opportunities for academically qualified low-income students says elite universities and colleges can do a lot more to recruit these students. So can high schools.

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation defines elite according to the Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges classification system and combines the top two rankings. In 2015, there were 91 “Most Competitive” and 102 “Highly Competitive” universities and colleges in the United States, according to Barron’s. Foundation research recently published revealed that just 3 percent of students at the top U.S. universities and colleges come from the 25 percent of families with the lowest incomes, while 72 percent of students come from the 25 percent of families with the highest incomes.

“It’s extraordinary,” Harold Levy, foundation executive director, says of the findings. “What it says, to me, is that the working class is basically history in these most selective schools, and the middle class is on its way out.” Elite schools, Levy continued, will be dominated by the wealthy. “That’s not what this country is about, and that’s not what these schools are supposed to be about.”

How colleges can better recruit qualified low-income students

An issue brief just published by the foundation urges top universities and colleges to rectify this situation by taking several steps. These include:

  • Making sure the true costs of attending after financial aid are clear on the schools’ websites.
  • Establishing programs to encourage more low-income students to apply for admission.
  • Simplifying the college admissions process because many low-income students cannot look to siblings or their parents for help with the applications.
  • Practicing need-blind admissions to the greatest extent possible. Such policies admit students based on their academic record and achievements without regard to their financial circumstances. Direct “merit aid” not based on financial need to students who require financial help to attend college.
  • Recognizing the barriers that low-income students have overcome when evaluating their applications.
  • Removing any other obstacles qualified low-income applicants may face in the admissions process.

Some are skeptical. “They have to change their internal policy for wanting those students,” says Hans Hanson, founder and CEO of CollegeLogic, an admissions advisory service.  “It’s strictly a business and marketing strategy of the colleges. Those priorities would have to change.”

To encourage top schools to focus on admitting qualified low-income students, the foundation in 2015 began awarding the Cooke Prize for Excellence in Educational Equity. Levy says the $1 million annual award is designed to focus attention on an elite institution doing a good job of recruiting qualified low-income students. Vassar College was the first winner; Amherst College is this year’s. There is no restriction on how the colleges can use the money, but they do have to tell the foundation what they did with it.

Colleges aren’t the only institutions failing students

High schools are also partly responsible for the situation, Levy says. Lack of state funding means there are not nearly enough college counselors for high school juniors and seniors, and the counselors who are available do not have adequate training on all of the financial resources that are available to help low-income students get into top schools.

Organizations are stepping in to fill the high school gap. One of these is Chicago Scholars, which since 2002 has helped nearly 1,800 Chicago public high school students with a GPA of 3.0 or higher and ACT scores of 19 or higher get into and through college to earn a degree and then transition into a career. The program selects high school juniors and emphasizes helping them find the most selective college or university that best suits their interests and abilities. The six-year graduation rate of Chicago Scholars is 86 percent, while just 49 percent of their peers earn a degree in the same timeframe.

“Our vision is to change the narrative of the city of Chicago by developing the leadership potential of our city’s youth,” says Dominique Jordan Turner, president/CEO of Chicago Scholars. She maintains colleges can and should do more to admit and support qualified low-income students by considering their leadership potential as well as their test scores, and by providing academic, social, and emotional help to them once they are on campus.

Hanson says that higher education has been financialized, and top universities and colleges have shown a trend toward converting financial aid awards into loans. “Elite colleges have a specific number in mind for how many recipients of full financial aid distributions they want to make in order to satisfy their obligation for marketing purposes,” he says. Only incentives from the federal government might change the situation, Hanson says. He also believes the top amount of federal Pell Grants should be raised far beyond the current top level of $5,815 for students with family income of less than $25,000.

“The government needs to have full-tuition financial aid for accepted students whose family makes less than $25,000,” Hanson says, pointing out that still leaves tens of thousands of dollars in room and board, books, and other expenses that the universities and colleges will have to cover with their own financial aid to make college affordable for low-income families.

Candace Talmadge
Candace Talmadge has been a professional writer since 1976. She has been on staff or reported and written freelance for media that includes Adweek, Advertising Age, BusinessWeek, the Dallas Times Herald, the International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, and Reuters America.

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