A new study by researchers from Harvard and Stanford has found that 238 U. S. colleges and universities ranked “the best” are still failing to attract applicants from lower-income backgrounds. Just over a third — 34 percent — of high-school seniors who were high-achieving and in the bottom fourth of income distribution attend the most selective schools. Should we keep focusing on getting low income students into these schools that are ranked “the best”– or should we focus on improving the schools they often attend, local ones near their families?
Intensive recruitment efforts have been devoted to increasing the numbers of lower income students at elite schools, with a view to decreasing the “achievement gap.” The thinking is, if we don’t do something to get more low income students into prestigious colleges, inequality among those of different income levels can only grow. Researchers Catherine M. Hoxby of Stanford and Christopher Avery of Harvard indeed point out that students from low-income backgrounds who do well in high school tend not to graduate from the less-selective schools they attend.
Students from lower economic backgrounds should be encouraged to consider such “selective” schools, for the chance to be educated by a top-notch faculty and also to interact with students from many different backgrounds and many different economic classes. But behind the efforts to get more low-income students to attend the “more selective” colleges with national and international reputations is the assumption that these provide the best education for any and all students.
Harvard and Yale are not always the best choice for every student who excels in high school. The very culture of “selective” schools can be mystifying for students from very different backgrounds. Coursework is just one part of going to college. Low-income students attending a selective college that is far from their home can end up living with — even being roommates with — someone who may have (for instance) attended an elite boarding school, have spent every summer on vacations around the world and have never had to work an after-school job at Walmart to help pay the rent.
A local school, while lacking the “big name” professors and other “perks,” can offer benefits from lower tuition to allowing a student to remain near family who may well need and rely on her or him. Family demands can take their toll on academics; so very often students have emailed me at the last minute that they must care for a younger sibling or take an older relative to the airport or hospital and they must miss class. But these responsibilities are also extremely important for students’ well-being. Living far away to attend school would mean students would not have ready access to a valuable support network.
This isn’t to say that students from low-incomes shouldn’t be encouraged to go to selective colleges. 89 percent of low-income students at selective colleges had graduated or were on track to, versus 50 percent of top low-income students at non-selective colleges, says the latest data cited in the New York Times.
We can’t automatically equate “selective” schools with the “best” education for students of every economic background.There’s more than one way — mote then just 238 schools — where students can thrive and learn.
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