Eighth installment in a two week discussion of the recent New York Times article “Generation Later, Poor Are Still Rare at Elite Colleges” by Richard Perez-Pena. Interested readers should check out our collection of posts about socio-economic issues related to admissions, from which I have plagiarized extensively.

And at a narrower, more elite group of 28 private colleges and universities, including all eight Ivy League members, researchers at Vassar and Williams Colleges found that from 2001 to 2009, a period of major increases in financial aid at those schools, enrollment of students from the bottom 40 percent of family incomes increased from just 10 percent to 11 percent.

Even with the best intentions, tapping the pool of high-performing low-income students can be hard. Studies point to many reasons poorer students with good credentials do not apply to competitive colleges, like lack of encouragement at home and at school, thinking (correctly or not) that they cannot afford it or believing they would be out of place, academically or socially.

First, let’s change the title of this article from “Generation Later, Poor Are Still Rare at Elite Colleges” to “Generation Later, Children of Short People Are Still Rare in the NBA.” Does that still seem surprising, or even problematic? Short people have, on average, short children. And being short dramatically decreases your odds of making the NBA. Of course, these (true) empirical claims are just averages. It is possible for short parents to have a tall child and/or for a short person to make it in the NBA. But no one should be surprised that it is rare.

Similarly, poverty is correlated with lower intelligence and work ethic and these traits, like height, are partially genetic. So, it is hardly surprising that a child of poor parents is less likely than a child of rich parents to have the sort of academic credentials that Williams wants.

Second, is the concern about being “out of place” something we should dismiss out of hand? Don’t many poor students, especially those from far away, feel out of place at Williams? In fact, they do, at least if you believe The New York Times:

When lower-income students start college, they often struggle to finish for many reasons, but social isolation and alienation can be big factors.

But once those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds arrive on campus, it’s often the subtler things, the signifiers of who they are and where they come from, that cause the most trouble, challenging their very identity, comfort and right to be on that campus. The more elite the school, the wider that gap.

To stay four years and graduate, students have to come to terms with the unspoken transaction: exchanging your old world for a new world, one that doesn’t seem to value where you came from.

Being young, I didn’t understand, believing myself immune to the idea that any gain might entail a corresponding loss. I was keen to exchange my Western hardscrabble life for the chance to be a New York City middle-class museumgoer. I’ve paid a price in estrangement from my own people, but I was willing. Not every 18-year-old will make that same choice, especially when race is factored in as well as class.

But how can we help our students prepare for the tug of war in their souls?

We can be honest. The fact that Cappy Hill, Tony Marx, Morty Schapiro and the rest of the Cathedral are not honest with these students is the single most infuriating thing about socio-economic affirmative action. For example, consider a non-rich senior from an average high school with 1300 Reading/Math SATs. Such a student, before accepting an offer of admissions from Williams, would like to know his odds of graduating in 4 years. But Williams won’t tell him! Williams refuses to reveal data that would help admitted students to better judge whether or not attending Williams is a wise decision.

Of course, we should do everything we can to alleviate feelings of out-of-placedness among all students at Williams, but we should not pretend that they don’t exist. Moreover, we shouldn’t mislead poor students about the challenges that await them at a place like Williams, especially poor students who we admit with academic credentials significantly below their peers.

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