Opinion

Fixing a higher education “caste system’’ that screams inequality: Help us find answers

The Trinity College Admissions Office waiting room.

Enter the admissions office at Trinity College in Connecticut and you’ll find a roaring fire, fresh flowers, floor-to-ceiling windows and a Latino enrollment dean who grew up poor, the first in his family to go to college. Angel B. Pérez, Trinity’s vice-president of enrollment and student success, is especially sympathetic to students with similar backgrounds. He knows they would benefit from the extraordinary resources of this private liberal arts institution where annual tuition and fees cost just under $64,000.

Only he can’t admit many of them.

“Do we all want more low-income students? Sure, but we would go into financial ruin,’’ Pérez recently told Jon Marcus of The Hechinger Report, crystallizing a key reason why college campuses like Trinity too often are largely the purview only of those who can afford them — and why our recent “Divided We Learn’’ project found that poor and minority students are drastically and increasingly underrepresented in key areas of higher education.

Related: The rich-poor divide on America’s college campuses is getting wider, fast

As part of our ongoing project, our team visited dozens of public and private college campuses, interviewed experts, reviewed data and found numerous examples of ways low-income and minority students are left behind, some of them particularly disturbing. For example, more than 50 years after passage of the Voting Rights Act and 60 years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling declared that state laws separating black and white students in public schools were unconstitutional, just 5 percent of students at the nation’s flagship public universities are black.

Related: Black students are drastically underrepresented at top public colleges, data show

Researchers we’ve spoken with believe the higher education system actually works against poorer students, including many who are black and Latino, by tracking them toward colleges with fewer resources and lower graduation rates.

Wealthy students with mediocre scores on standardized tests generally attend better colleges than poor kids with high scores. At the most competitive institutions, 72 percent of students come from the wealthiest one-quarter of families, while only 3 percent come from families in the bottom socioeconomic quarter. And students from that bottom quarter have only a 9 percent chance of graduating from any college by age 24.

Yale University students and faculty rally to demand that Yale University become more inclusive to all students on Cross Campus in New Haven on Monday, Nov. 9, 2015. The “March of Resilience” followed several racially charged incidents at Yale, including allegations that a fraternity turned a woman away from a party because she was not white. At center is associate professor Crystal Feimster.

Our reporting comes at a critical juncture. The proportion of recent low-income high school graduates enrolled in college fell from 56 percent in 2008 to 46 percent in 2013, and recent research tells us that the racial gap in who is graduating from college is widening. The U.S. Supreme Court may soon rule on a case with the potential to alter the future racial makeup of student bodies at public and private colleges throughout the country.

In addition, in recent months racial unrest has swept campuses from coast to coast, with students demanding more diversity and supports on campus. This all points to the need for new ideas, fresh approaches and potential solutions; even ones that may be unrealistic or hard to deploy widely.

We hope you will share them with us at The Hechinger Report, as we continue our reporting for the “Divided We Learn’’ series.

Related: Yale students break through generations of pained black silence

We welcome op-eds and invitations to visit high schools and campuses and conferences where these topics are being discussed and addressed. We want to hear from policymakers, students, deans, college presidents, faculty and researchers about what is working to ease racial tensions and diversify student bodies.

We’ll be seeking advice and answers everywhere. We’ll continue highlighting bright spots, including those from the private sector. For example, we recently spent time with mentors from accounting giant EY (formerly known as Ernst & Young). Employees there have helped hundreds of low-income college students since EY started a program in 2009 that provides extra support via monthly meetings, calls, texts and advice for everything from resumes to scholarship applications.

Related: At a corporate giant where one-third of employees were first-generation college grads, staff tries to give back

We’ll report on promising policies, such as requiring students to take college entrance exams in high school (adopted by 11 states) — a way of increasing enrollment in four-year colleges.

We’ll listen to the college students in our lives. I recently read a nine-page list of demands from private Oberlin College and Conservatory’s Black Student Union, calling for specific increases in the numbers of black students and administrators, along with financial aid workshops and an online database outlining deadlines, dates and forms critical for students’ educational success.

We’ll speak with experts like Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and the author of dozens of books and articles about inequality in higher education. Levine’s been following the recent unrest on college campuses and worries that “students of color feel like an unwelcome guest at a party.” He believes that at least part of the answer lies in changing spending priorities.

Arthur Levine

“You really can’t fix this [higher education divide] without dedicated financial aid,” Levine said, and offered a laundry list of small but significant steps that high schools — and, later, colleges — should be taking. They range from summer programs for the college bound to recruitment efforts and specific ways to make campus climates more welcoming for poor and minority students.

Levine also suggested that colleges think hard about the “arms race” to build new state-of-the-art dormitories, gyms and science buildings. “Maybe you don’t build the climbing wall this year, but invest in financial aid instead,” he said.

That’s one solution setting tiny Hamilton College in upstate New York apart. Outgoing Hamilton College President Joan Hinde Stewart recently told me about how alumni had joined her push to boost financial aid and consider applicants without regard to their ability to pay. The school also dropped a policy of offering merit aid as a tool to recruit top students.

Related: How one top college bucked a trend to make more poor and nonwhite applicants

After Hamilton adopted its “need blind” policy in 2010, its proportion of nonwhite freshmen rose from 13 percent to about 25 percent. That’s a small, but significant solution, even if few colleges are rushing to replicate it.

Yet changing U.S. demographics mean more qualified low-income students will be making their way to admissions offices like those at Hamilton and Trinity — if they’ve managed to overcome the obstacles to getting there. And they are going to need more financial aid to attend.

Because financial aid budgets are rarely big enough, the majority of those students will instead wind up at community colleges and regional public universities with lower success rates. They’ll be overrepresented at institutions with limited resources, scarce amenities and uncertain outcomes.

Related: Amid national diversity protests community college students dare to dream of debt-free life

Many of the educators and experts we’ve spoken with agree this is unacceptable.

I followed up with Pérez, who writes and speaks widely about the need to boost enrollments for low-income and minority students and works with scholarship organizations to find funding. He’s frustrated that Trinity can’t do even more, even though new President Joanne Berger-Sweeney recently raised over $10 million for financial aid.

“It’s never enough,” Pérez told me. “Each year I have to turn away students because we just don’t have enough money to support all of the students that deserve a spot in our class. This isn’t a Trinity problem. It’s an American higher education problem.”

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read our “Divided We Learn” series.

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Liz Willen

Liz Willen, a longtime education reporter, has been proud to lead an award-winning staff of The Hechinger Report since 2011. She was recently honored for… See Archive