An American Dream, or a Mirage? Top Colleges Overlook Low-Income Students

Anthony Marx, former President of Amherst College (soon to be head of the New York Public Library), raises the question of how meritocratic American elite colleges are (not very) and at what cost (high). See the complete NYT article here.

Marx worked for seven years at Amherst to try to recruit more low- and middle-class income students with some progress, yet worries, “the progress has the potential to distract people from how troubling the situation remains.”

How meritocratic?

“We claim to be part of the American dream and of a system based on merit and opportunity and talent,” Mr. Marx says. “Yet if at the top places, two-thirds of the students come from the top quartile and only 5 percent come from the bottom quartile, then we are actually part of the problem of the growing economic divide rather than part of the solution.”

And the cost?

The truth is that many of the most capable low- and middle-income students attend community colleges or less selective four-year colleges close to their home. Doing so makes them less likely to graduate from college at all, research has shown. Incredibly, only 44 percent of low-income high school seniors with high standardized test scores enroll in a four-year college, according to a Century Foundation report — compared with about 50 percent of high-income seniors who have average test scores.

“The extent of wasted human capital,” wrote the report’s authors, Anthony P. Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, “is phenomenal.”

The NYT article lists the efforts Amherst made, some modeled after University of California campuses at Berkeley, LA, and San Diego, and why:

Attracting the best of the best — not just the best of the affluent — and letting them learn from one another is the whole point of a place like Amherst.

“We did this for educational reasons,” Mr. Marx says. “We aim to be the most diverse college in the country — and the most selective.”

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