Poor seen left out on college diversity

At top-ranked schools, income a bigger hurdle than race, study finds

By David G. Savage, Los Angeles Times, 4/7/2003

WASHINGTON -- The most underrepresented group of Americans at the nation's top colleges and universities is not blacks or Hispanics, but students from low-income families, according to a report released last week.

Only 3 percent of the first-year students at the 146 most selective colleges and universities come from families in the bottom quarter of Americans ranked by income. About 12 percent of the students on those campuses are black or Hispanic.

''There is even less socioeconomic diversity than racial or ethnic diversity at the most selective colleges,'' said Anthony P. Carnevale, vice president of the Educational Testing Service and a coauthor of the study. ''There are four times as many African-American and Hispanic students as there are students from the lowest [socioeconomic status] quartile.''

Carnevale's study looked at who attends the nation's most selective four-year colleges, as ranked by Barron's Guide to Colleges. Together, blacks and Hispanics make up 28 percent of the nation's 18-year-olds, but they each compose 6 percent of the entering classes at those schools. The picture is bleaker for those who come from the lower half of the income spectrum, regardless of their race or ethnic heritage. Only 10 percent of the entering class at the sought-after schools is made up of students from the bottom half of the income scale, Carnevale found.

He is among a small group of researchers that has pressed the idea of ''class-based affirmative action.'' Public opinion surveys show that most people, even if they are skeptical of affirmative action based on race, strongly support giving extra help to students who have overcome disadvantages, he said.

''Opportunity and upward mobility is what America is all about,'' Carnevale said. ''Americans want strivers to be given a chance, but we don't like to talk about class anymore.'' Cost is one barrier. Federal aid for low-income students has not kept pace with the rising costs of higher education. While college officials say they give extra consideration and aid to students from poor families, Carnevale said the national data do not bear out that assertion.

''They say they are beating the bushes for low-income kids, but it's not true,'' he said. If admissions to the top colleges tracked test scores and grades, the percentage of students from families with below-average incomes would rise substantially, he said.

Harvard Law School professor C. Lani Guinier agreed that the admissions policies of the top colleges are part of a ''the great inequality machine''

''There is tremendous bias in favor of wealth'' and not just because parents of children from affluent homes can pay the high cost of the best colleges, she said.

''In testing, people talk about the `Volvo effect,' '' Guinier said. ''The test scores correlate with family affluence.'' No wonder then that three-fourths of the entering students at the top colleges come from the top fourth of the income spectrum, she said, citing another finding of Carnevale's study.

In education circles, however, class-based affirmative action is a sensitive subject because of the continuing dispute over race-conscious affirmative action.

Even proponents are divided. Some, like Carnevale, say that reaching out to low-income whites and blacks should be added to the traditional policies that seek out promising black and Hispanic students.

''We need both,'' he said. ''I want [college officials] to go after middle-class black kids, but I also want them to put more energy into going after low-income white kids and low-income black kids.''

Others say economics and social class should replace the current focus on race and ethnicity.

This story ran on page A3 of the Boston Globe on 4/7/2003.