Why the White House Summit on Low-Income Students Matters

Why the White House Summit on Low-Income Students Matters

Richard Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

Yesterday, socioeconomic diversity on college campuses—an issue long overshadowed by the question of diversity by race—took center stage at the White House,  President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and the staffers Gene Sperling and James Kvaal convened an extraordinary meeting of more than 100 college presidents and 40 businesses and philanthropies to promote greater access and success for low-income students of all races.  The price of admission for participants was agreeing to make a tangible commitment to improve opportunities for disadvantaged students—a pledge to increase the proportion of students eligible for Pell Grants, for example, or to create a new mentoring program or a new high-school-outreach program.

It would be tempting to dismiss this meeting as a one-day effort among a relatively small number of institutions. After all, most colleges across the country did not make commitments to greater equity and were not represented at the conference. Moreover, the effort was limited to the extent that the White House announced no new federal programs to support colleges in promoting educational opportunity for low-income students.  But putting the prestige of the White House behind an effort to extract pledges to increase socioeconomic diversity at a significant number of colleges represents a remarkable paradigm shift in American higher education. For almost 50 years, socioeconomic diversity has been higher education’s disfavored stepchild in comparison with racial diversity. Racial and socioeconomic diversity are related, of course, but they also represent distinct concerns, and in the past colleges have been much more willing to take on the former challenge than the latter.

Socioeconomic gaps are much larger than racial gaps. Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, for example, found in a 2010 Century Foundation report that while white students are overrepresented at the nation’s most selective colleges by 15 percentage points, the most socioeconomically advantaged quarter of the population is overrepresented by 45 percentage points.  Likewise, in college admissions, while universities claim that they provide a boost to both underrepresented minorities and low-income students, careful research suggests that that is not true. A 2005 study by William Bowen found that while being black or Latino increased one’s chance of admission to selective colleges by 28 percentage points, being low-income did not increase one’s chances whatsoever.

Why has higher education shown more progress in promoting racial diversity than socioeconomic diversity? For one thing, racial diversity (or a lack thereof) is more visible to the naked eye than is economic diversity. It is also more expensive to provide financial aid for low-income students than to recruit upper-middle-class students of all races. And while civil-rights groups are admirably organized to place pressure on colleges to address a lack of racial diversity, there are no strong constituency groups to lobby on behalf of low-income students per se.  That’s why the White House program to elicit from colleges concrete action plans for advancing economically disadvantaged students of all races is so significant. Effectively, the president and first lady threw their power and prestige behind a group that is largely voiceless in higher education.

At the summit, colleges made a wide variety of pledges to help a mostly powerless constituency:

• Franklin & Marshall College committed to raise its financial aid budget by 10 percent.
• Miami Dade College agreed to provide mandatory advising for all first-time college students who have skills gaps.
• Northeastern College committed to provide 150 full-tuition, need-based scholarships to graduates of Boston Public Schools.
• Pomona College committed to increase the proportion of students receiving Pell Grants from 17 percent to at least 20 percent.
• SUNY at Stony Brook committed to increase its four-year graduation rate to 60 percent by 2018, through expanded tutoring and a freeze on tuition for low-income students, among other steps.
• The University of Arkansas committed to establish a six-week summer bridge program for low-income freshmen.
• The University of Minnesota pledged to close the first-year retention rate between Pell-eligible students and those not receiving Pell Grants.
• Vassar College will expand pre-orientation and support programs for low-income students and military veterans.
• Yale University plans to increase by 50 percent the number of low-income students admitted as part of the QuestBridge program.

What’s notable about those commitments is not their scale but that they were made despite incentives not to aid low-income students. The U.S. News & World Report rankings—chief arbiter of who is up and who is down—give no credit for enrolling low-income students; indeed, putting resources into financial aid could take money away from activities that do improve a college’s rankings.

Significantly, President Obama’s own speech at the White House summit reinforced the day’s message about the salience of class over race. He pointed to his wife’s remarkable rise as a first-generation college student and implicitly contrasted that with the Obamas’ daughters, Sasha and Malia, who, at Sidwell Friends School, are showered with intensive advising and support not available to low-income students.  Of course, Sasha and Malia are not typical of African-American students nationally, who are disproportionately poor and will disproportionately benefit from the programs that Obama champions. Which is precisely why, in the long run, the White House summit may prove good not only for socioeconomic diversity but for racial diversity as well.

The White House is surely aware that the legal winds are blowing against the explicit use of racial preferences in college admissions. In that sense, the president’s emphasis on low-income students of all races is welcome on two levels. He encourages colleges and universities to take new steps on behalf of economically disadvantaged students, for whom higher education has fallen short. And he is stimulating colleges to create—through a variety of programs—what may well become the affirmative-action plans of the future.