Are Selective Colleges Really Better for Everyone?

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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Mary B.
Mary B4 years ago

I think the elite schools should pay low income students to teach classes in what life is like for those who do the underpaid and unappreciated jobs that they take for granted. And it wouldn't just be about jobs, but all the other things rich kids don't have to contend with, like finding decent affordable houseing and coming up with 1st and last months rent, a damage deposit, fees to have untilities activated, finding an affordable car that is dependable, trying to eat healthy in an area with no good super markets and maybe liveing in a motel with no place to cook. Maybe if the rich kids actually learned something about what it takes to just survive on little money, they might develope some empathy and grow up to be real people.It's a shame to waste a good education on those who don't care about the well being of our working class.

Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran4 years ago


Stephen Brian
Stephen Brian4 years ago

Hi Cathleen :)

Look at employment-rates among college graduates and non-graduates. The numbers immedaitely after graduation tend to be skewed because that is when a lot of former students start families, so due to pregnancy and maternity, there is low labour-force participation among female graduates immedaitely after graduation. Also discount the proportion of students who go to graduate or professional programs as they are not counted as being in the labour-force either. After adjustments for families and graduate students, it's much higher than for non-graduates. Then look at the proportion who hold jobs outside of their fields of study (one study I found said ~40%, but I think that's a little low). There are cases where people will ignore the degrees, or assume that those job-seekers will find something better shortly after training (so the employer would lose money), but for good jobs, those degrees count for a lot.

More importantly, it's not just about the entry-level positions. It's about the career-advancement beyond those positions. Companies look at on-the-job performance, but they require outside certification of skills needed for new positions to avoid "promotion to the level of incompetence", where people get promoted out of the jobs they do well until they get stuck in one they cannot handle, to their own detriment and that of everyone for whom they are responsible.

Jonathan Harper
Jonathan Harper4 years ago


Cathleen K.
Cathleen K4 years ago

Stephen B, it's just hilarious that you think a diploma from Harvard, Yale or Princeton is ever judged as a better ticket to an entry level position that doesn't actually require a college education!

Marilyn L, you said exactly what I was thinking.

Stephen Brian
Stephen Brian4 years ago

Just as a side-note, this requirement of "letters" from prestigious institutions is the primary structural problem in socioeconomic mobility in the U.S. To fight against job-discrimination, decades ago Congress put a hurdle of ~$100,000 in the path of anyone seeking career-advancement. By artificially making university a necessity in an economy that doesn't really require that level or type of education, it is also responsible for much of the current student-debt as students who would normally have gone to vocational schools, developed skills indepdently, or otherwise worked their way up through whatever firms now have to pay for college.

The law cannot just be repealed: Dramatically reducing the value of university-attendance would reduce that attendance, and undergraduate tuition funds universities. Without working out some kind of soft landing for the universities first, repealing that law could have catastrophic effects for college education in the U.S. Of course, imagine trying to convince people that either general aptitude-testing doesn't favour specific cultures (how many people here have screamed "white priviledge" over the SATs?), or that a law meant to keep that from driving structural racism is bad. Even if that can be done, if this whole thing gets accepted, imagine trying to slow down the repealing long enough to get that safe landing. These problems are inevitable in progressivists' top-down solutions.

Stephen Brian
Stephen Brian4 years ago

From what I understand, one of the biggest problems in the U.S. is that we really can say that the most selective colleges are the most conducive to successful careers, regardless of whether or not they actually provide the best education. Here's the story, and it is an example of the central reason why I think the danger of progressivists screwing up is so great that I am not exactly the movement's greatest fan.

There is a law, meant ot prevent hiring discrimination, which forbids companies from testing job-applicants on any skills not required for the job for which they apply. Those who wrot ethe law had the best intentions, but they failed to realize that companies want to hire people they might eventually promote, so they need general aptitude testing. They can't do it themsleves anymore, so they outsource it to the education-system, effectively demanding diplomas as letters of recommendation from institutions, certifying general aptitudes. The more prestigious the college, the more that "letter" means. A prestigious school can leave a graduate less qualified, but better certified, and that means a higher likelihood of career-advanccement beyond entry-level positions, even in jobs that don't really require a university-education.

Marilyn L.
Marilyn L4 years ago

“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.” And this is probably because they come from HSs in low income communities where most of the standards are lower to show higher graduation rates; so naturally they are not going to do well in ANY college/university because they are not prepared to do so.

The problem is not what college these kids go to; but the poor education, learning habits, study habits, and poor educators they have had from Pre K to HS; a 4.0 in most, if not all, lower income schools is not the same as a 4.0 from a quality upper income neighborhood school. No one wants to hear that truth, but it is the truth. Let’s be honest Pre K to 12th desperately needs an overhaul, which means among other things all schools have to have the same quality of education no matter where it is.

I say this not as an elitist but someone who grew up poor, went to mediocre schools from lst grade to 12th. Fortunately for me I had the good sense to join the military before going to college and this help with developing skills and knowledge I didn't have from HS. I also helped myself by getting a AA first before going on to university.

Sherrie Brunell
Sherrie Brunell4 years ago

When I first started reading this, I thought she was going to focus on how difficult it is for low-income students to afford top-notch schools, not on whether or not they will fit in socially or can compete academically. I actually found the tone of this article to be rather elitist:

"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."

By using the phrase, "failing to attract applicants from lower-income backgrounds" it sounds as if students from lower-income backgrounds have the exact same options and choices as those from higher-incomes, which we all know is not true, and the schools are just not getting their attention. Even with scholarships, most low-income students must still take out student loans to afford the higher-cost schools, and a lot of them are simply not willing or able to take on that level of student loan debt, especially in this economy.

The author does almost touch on this when she talks about the financial difficulty a low-income family might face when a member leaves for school, but it's more of a side-note than a look at the hard reality of the choices low-income households have to face everyday.

Ad Du
Ad Du4 years ago

@ Robert O.

I would assume you are asking this of the author, not of me. I'm not saying that - let me just answer it anyway.

But yes, they will have to accept their lot in life, after some 12 years of school sabotage. At that age (about 18), they are "ineligible" for "select schools" no matter what.