Opening Up the Elites

Presenting powerful new data, a researcher advocates "class based" affirmative action that credits students for overcoming backgrounds.
June 2, 2006

In recent years, driven in part by the publication of books like William G. Bowen's Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education and Jerome Karabel's The Chosen, a small but steadily growing number of elite private and public colleges have embraced the idea that they must do a much better job of opening their doors to students from low-income families. Private institutions such as Princeton University and Amherst College and selective public institutions like the Universities of Virginia and North Carolina at Chapel Hill have altered their financial aid programs and, to a lesser extent, their admissions policies with the goal of expanding the number of underprivileged students they enroll.

But those efforts have not moved nearly far enough or fast enough toward changing the makeup of selective colleges, Karabel argued Thursday at a meeting on higher education quality and equity sponsored by the Educational Testing Service and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

The sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley laid out powerful new data about the comparative lack of access for low income students to highly selective institutions. He also proposed a form of "class based" affirmative action that would compare students' performance to what might be expected of them based on their families, schools and backgrounds, and push elite colleges to consider how successfully students have overcome their disadvantages in the admissions process.

"These changes could in a modest way change the way that elite colleges and universities do business, and help fulfill the time-honored ideal that they exist not to transmit privilege from one generation to the next, but to enhance opportunity," Karabel said.

But other participants in the discussion expressed concern that Karabel's emphasis on increasing the flow of low-income students to the relatively small number (100-150) of academically selective institutions was too narrow, and had the potential to distract policy makers and higher education officials from the much larger problem of getting terribly underprepared students from lower socioeconomic groups to a level where they are ready for any college.

The session came on the first day of a two-day meeting on assessment, held at the ETS campus in Princeton, N.J., as part of the yearlong celebration of the Carnegie foundation's 100th anniversary. Assessment is a loaded word that means many different things to many different people in higher education. So it's probably not surprising that this gathering of dozens of national experts on teaching and testing is all over the map, even though the word "assessment" appeared in the title of virtually every session. The panel on which Karabel appeared was called "Uses of Assessment in Influencing the Outcomes of the Nation’s Broad and Diverse Population," and it was about that in its way; there was, for instance, quite a bit of talk (rather delicately, given the host) about the role that standardized tests can play in limiting access to higher education for certain racial and ethnic groups.

Karabel’s book The Chosen was best known for its examination of how Harvard, Yale and Princeton shunned Jews in the first half of the 20th century, but much of it focused on how those and the nation’s other elite institutions are giving other groups short shrift now, and that has been the focus of much of his research since. In his presentation Thursday, he offered previously released data prepared by Anthony P. Carnevale and Stephen J. Rose about the composition of the student bodies at 146 selective institutions. The data show that students from the lowest socioeconomic quartile made up just 3 percent of the students at those institutions, while students from families in the highest quartile made up 74 percent (the figures for the other two quartiles, from lowest to highest, were 6 percent and 17 percent, respectively). He presented figures, as well, showing the almost equally strong correlation between family income and scores on standardized test scores.

Karabel then turned to brand-new data from the College Board (which he acknowledged was imperfect, because of reporting flaws) that he said show how much the family background of students’ families can limit their likelihood of admission to elite institutions, at least as measured by standardized test scores. About 6 percent of students whose parents had only a high school diploma scored 650 or above on the SAT verbal exam, compared to 25 percent of students with parents with graduate degrees. The pattern was much the same for parental income.

Those statistics suggest, Karabel said, that colleges should be buttressing their existing policies on race-based affirmative action with a similar approach to not just economic but social class. "You have to look at how well students have done given the opportunities available to them," he said. He proposed a several-step formula that would take into account the students family, neighborhood, and school:

The family measure would capture not just family income and parents’ education, but also, ideally, the parents’ occupations and the family’s net worth. A "neighborhood" measure could be based on the average income of a student’s zip code or, better yet, his or her Census tract ("there’s a good research project for ETS," Karabel said.) And the formula could account for the quality of a student’s high school through the creation of a national database on secondary schools, which could capture such information as the proportion of students who participate in the federal school lunch program, who take AP courses, and who go on to college, he suggested.

"If you have these three things, you can build a comprehensive portrait of kind of opportunities that have been available to the student," Karabel argued.

Colleges, he suggested, should then give a boost in the admissions process to applicants who are shown under such a formula to have academically outperformed the likely outcomes based on their backgrounds. Institutions can rejigger their financial aid policies to help low-income students afford college, Karabel argued, but unless they also adjust their admissions policies to "change the way they select among the applicant pool," the change will be minimal. "Money is necessary, but it's not sufficient."

In an audience filled largely with people who spend their days trying to bolster access to higher education, Karabel's proposal was generally applauded. But Neil Grabois, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and a fellow presenter, said he worried that spending significant time and energy on crafting an entirely new way of helping relatively small numbers of needy students gain admission to selective institutions would be a distraction from the larger problem: "enabling people of talent to go to" college at all. "I worry about a system put together for admission to some elite institutions as if they were the only ones," he said.

Grabois also said that such a focus could undermine efforts to fix the underlying causes of the gap in access: the redistribution of wealth that is widening the gap between rich and poor in the United States, and the generally poor state of public education that contributes to so many low-income students being academically underprepared for college. "You would reduce the pressure to change" those problems, Grabois said. "I would rather deal with the issue at its heart."

Arnold Hyndman, president of the New Jersey State Board of Education and a professor of cell biology and neuroscience at Rutgers University, agreed. "This would simply be allowing another set of individuals to enter into the aristocracy, but not doing anything to change the nature of our society."

The rest of Thursday's meeting dealt with the pressure coming at colleges from a range of perspectives to more effectively measure their performance, which Debra Stuart, vice chancellor for administration with the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, characterized in a series of questions: "How can we assure legislators that we are doing what we should be doing, and that their investment in higher education is worth it? How can we assure regents that we're spending their money wisely? How can we assure employers that we produce talented graduates?"

Richard Shavelson, a professor of education and psychology at Stanford University, laid out a narrative showing that the push to hold colleges accountable for student learning, while often portrayed as a new phenomenon, is many decades old. (The creation of the ETS and many of its tests, including the Graduate Record Examination, he noted, were responses to just the sort of pressure that colleges are feeling today.)

And in his post-dinner speech, Freeman Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, said that colleges must get behind the movement to "measure what we do," and "collect in a systematic way data on student learning." But institutional leaders face a problem because many faculty members "have no trust in that kind of systematic approach," and are too often "satisfied with the status quo," he said. "When I talk about assessment on campus, the faculty look at me with suspicion."

His job and that of other institutional leaders, Hrabowski said, is to "develop language that can get these forces from inside the academy and outside the academy working together."


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