Problems With Need-Blind College Admissions

It's the time of year when high school seniors around the nation who have applied for admission to college in the fall semester are learning where they have been accepted. Unfortunately, many students from families with low incomes continue to be rejected from schools they are very qualified to attend simply because of their need for financial aid. It is long past time for this unjust economic discrimination to end.

Many people hold the mistaken view that outstanding high school students from low-income families will have no trouble being admitted to the colleges of their dreams and paying for tuition and living costs thanks to "need-blind" admissions policies.

But in fact, only about 100 of the nation's approximately 4,200 colleges and universities offer need-blind admissions, meaning that a student's ability to pay is not considered by the schools when choosing which students to accept. And admission to these schools is not always accompanied by sufficient financial aid to cover a student's costs. This is because only a few very wealthy colleges have committed to meeting full need. Need-blind colleges still need to balance their budgets just like businesses, so not all students will receive all the financial aid they require to enroll.

Anyone who has had to pay a tuition bill recently knows that college costs have been rising far faster than inflation. According to the College Board, the average charge for tuition, fees and room and board at a public college in the current academic year is $19,598. For a private college the average cost is $43,921 - and goes much higher for some schools. Colleges can't afford to give up all that money.

As a result, need-blind admissions policies are a great public relations tool, but have failed to erase an important advantage that wealthy students have in the competition for admission. The number of high achieving, low-income students at highly selective colleges has remained essentially flat for the past 10 years.

A recent study by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, where I am executive director, found that only 3 percent of students at top colleges come from the poorest 25 percent of families, while a staggering 72 percent of students at these colleges come from the richest 25 percent of families. Translation: the working class is history at these schools and the middle class is being squeezed out.

The reason for this disparity is easy to understand. High school counselors, particularly in low-income public schools, have overwhelming caseloads, are poorly trained and are recognized simply for getting students into college - not the best college or the best fit. In addition, the colleges themselves have inadvertently made being poor or even middle class a handicap in admissions by giving wealthy students many advantages that amount to affirmative action for the rich.

Wealthy students, for example, can take the SAT or the ACT multiple times and submit only their best scores. They do this after taking often expensive test prep; the Kaplan Premier course now costs $5,400. A poor applicant - even one who is very smart and has a superlative high school record - takes the standardized test cold, much in the way that one would take a reading test. There is no aspect of this that could be remotely described as fair.

Colleges could do much more to make equal educational opportunity a reality, notwithstanding their claims to the contrary. I recently spoke with the dean of admissions of an Ivy League college who told me that the school had an elaborate system of trying to identify "markers" for low-income applicants who were likely to succeed at a high level. If colleges are determined to maintain their ostensible need-blind admissions policies, they all need to develop such indicators.

These markers are not hard to imagine: single-parent family, high schools with low graduation rates, students being eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, and the student living in a low-income neighborhood, particularly public housing.

We need to address the problem of economic discrimination that is keeping bright students out of colleges they are academically qualified to attend. With states funding an ever smaller share of higher education spending, Congress and the White House should work together on a bipartisan basis to provide additional funding to allow colleges to admit more students with big minds and small wallets. They cannot afford to be blind to the need of students for this assistance.

Former New York City Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy is executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which has awarded about $147 million in scholarships to more than 2,000 exceptionally promising low-income students and $90 million in grants to organizations that serve such students.