Need-Blind Is Just Like Colorblind: Why Low-income Kids Should Receive Preferential Consideration in College Admissions

Need-blind college admissions processes evaluate applicants solely based on a broadly defined definition of merit (wink wink), detaching information on students’ financial need from the application review and final admission decision. Since need-blind colleges, particularly those that meet students’ full financial need, never reject a prospective student because of an inability to pay, this process is often considered the gold standard in college admissions.

In reality, it is more like fool’s gold.

By not considering financial need, these processes (albeit well-intentioned) ignore the impact of socioeconomic class in the same way colorblind policies marginalize the impact that race has on the everyday experiences and life outcomes for people of color. When people fail to acknowledge, recognize, and consider race, they also overlook the historical and current disadvantages that affect the lives of folks with darker skin tones. For example: If we don’t see race, how can we address race-based inequalities in health, life-expectancy, poverty, unemployment, pay, and educational access and attainment? Ignoring these realities solves nothing; policy remedies are required. Similarly, it is equally as unproductive to ignore the disadvantages that accompany socioeconomic status.

Now, we must admit that money isn’t everything, but in 1997, Diddy (then Puff Daddy) wasn’t too far off the mark when he proclaimed it was “All About the Benjamins,” especially when it comes to education. If a family has access to financial capital and feels inclined, they can usually get their children the best education money can buy. If they aren’t filthy rich but can afford a nice home in a middle-class neighborhood, their children will still likely attend a decent school. However, if they are poor, well … their children will likely attend K-12 schools that have fewer resources, less experienced teachers, lower curricular rigor, and limited academic options.

These systemic inequalities, compounded throughout years of schooling, restrict low-income kids’ capacity to develop an academic profile that would rival that of a peer from a more affluent background. While intended to be helpful, need-blind processes further disadvantage students from low-income and working-class family backgrounds by overlooking the barriers they faced prior to submitting their college applications. This is why preferential consideration should be provided to students from lower socioeconomic means.

If you look at many of the colleges and universities that have need-blind admissions policies and meet full financial need (it’s a small list), you will notice several trends: a) They are usually well-resourced and considered elite, and b) they enroll very few students from low-income and working-class backgrounds (we refer to these institutions as “engines of inequality”). The latter could change if these institutions gave preferential consideration to students from lower income brackets AND maintained their commitments to meeting students’ full financial need while never rejecting applicants because they can’t pay. Such an approach would make these elite institutions engines of social change instead of engines of inequality.


Introducing New Features to College Results Online

We often hear a lot about what makes a good college, but not as much about what makes a bad college. College Results Online, our interactive tool with information for nearly every four-year college and university in the country, tries to demystify that issue by adding two new features to alert students and policymakers of colleges that may not have the best results for students.

CRO now tags colleges that have extremely low graduation rates (what we call “college dropout factories”) and colleges with little socioeconomic diversity (our “engines of inequality”). Colleges that fall in the bottom 5 percent of four-year colleges nationwide for graduation rates or low-income student enrollment will now be marked with the following symbols:

CRO_stopCollege Dropout Factories: These colleges graduate less than 16 percent of their students and may not be the best option for students, especially if they are first-generation or low-income and may require additional support. These colleges should draw the attention of states and policymakers, as well as the public, which are increasingly questioning the return on investment for a college degree.

CRO_warningEngines of Inequality: These colleges enroll less than 16 percent of students from working-class and low-income families and are not very socioeconomically diverse. This is a flag for students from these backgrounds — and for any student seeking a culturally diverse experience in college. To prepare students for the workforce, these colleges should commit to student body diversity in all forms of the word.

So why the bottom 5 percent? As described in our Tough Love report, there is a wide range in institutional performance on key metrics related to student access and student success.

Consider, for example, the range in current six-year (never mind four-year) graduation rates: 0.6 percent to 100 percent. The bottom of the pack includes colleges like:

A similar range exists for the enrollment rates of low-income students. Among the low-performers there, perhaps unsurprisingly, are some of our nation’s most exclusive colleges:

This range in performance is not good for our country, and it’s not good for students. What’s needed is a bright-line, bottom-line standard — such as the bottom 5 percent — that identifies colleges that are not living up to their core public missions: ensuring access for low-income students and graduating all students. Both are important indicators of an institution’s commitment to students and the public good. And since getting a college degree has never been more important, students and families — as well as policymakers and advocates — need to know which colleges may not be the best investment. To discover which colleges don’t have strong results for students and explore higher performing options, check out our refreshed CRO.

(Learn how to navigate CRO and use its new features in this video tutorial.)

Who Will You Meet at #EdTrust2014?

We’ve got powerful speakers lined up and an enriching, diverse list of breakout sessions to offer you at our national conference in Baltimore on Nov. 13-14. What’s left? The connections you’ll make with like-minded advocates and practitioners who are dedicated to the hard work of closing the achievement gap – just like you. Here’s what attendees had to say last year:

So I Get That You Probably Won’t Think This Is As Much Fun As I Do

Sometimes when I have a free minute, I look back at old “Where We Stand” columns written by Albert Shanker. Shanker was president of the New York United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and, later, the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s second-largest teachers union.

For 27 years, a weekly advertorial, paid for by UFT and appearing in The New York Times’ Sunday Week in Review section, was written primarily by Shanker.

Those old columns hold a treasure trove of thinking about school issues that people across the political spectrum found provocative and informative. In my perusing, I recently ran across a column he wrote in 1979 about a British study I had never come across, Fifteen Thousand Hours. Continue reading

Rankings Aren’t Enough

Kudos to The New York Times for drawing more attention to the collegiate success of low-income students by ranking colleges based on their enrollment of Pell Grant recipients and net price for low- and middle-income students.

We only wish their rankings were more comprehensive, so they could shine a brighter light on problems faced by our nation’s students with the greatest financial need.

Because The New York Times decided to only look at colleges with four-year graduation rates greater than 75 percent, less than 100 institutions (out of more than 2,000 across the country) are included in its analysis. This means that the rankings overlook the large majority of students enrolled in four-year colleges. (The graduation rate for the majority of institutions falls well below 75 percent, as illustrated below.) Continue reading

Don’t Understate What Low-Income Students Pay for College

Recent news reports have implied that elite colleges are a bargain for low-income students — that the financial aid awarded to them reduces the total price to a manageable amount, even for our nation’s poorest students.

But these reports have missed one crucial point: Elite colleges enroll a small portion of undergraduate students and an even smaller portion of the nation’s low-income students. Roughly 4 in 10 full-time freshmen at four-year colleges receive Pell Grants, but there are more than 100 colleges that enroll less than 17 percent of Pell students in their freshman class. (And we already know there are more than enough qualified low-income students for elite colleges to choose from). While some have no-loan programs for low-income students, it’s hard to benefit from such generous financial aid if access to these colleges is limited. Continue reading

Examining the Common Factor Between Michael Brown and Discipline Disproportionality: Implicit Bias

Michael Brown, a black unarmed teen, was two days away from starting college when he was fatally shot by a police officer. Outside of the tragic loss of this young man lies a more systemic tragedy: The perception of Brown as a low-income troublemaker trumps the perception of him as a college hopeful. Far too often, this same dynamic plays out between teachers and students in our nation’s schools.

It is well-documented that black students are suspended and expelled for the same (or lesser) offenses at a rate three times greater than white students. However, data consistently show these disparities do not exist because of differences in rates or types of misbehavior by students of different races; they exist because young, black men in our education system are unfairly singled out for harsher penalties. School discipline is often a manifestation of implicit bias, and it is one of the few places we can directly witness its impact on the schooling of children.

Implicit bias, an unconscious positive or negative attitude toward a person or group, is complex. It arises from the pairing of two things — in the case of school discipline: being a black male and a troublemaker. This linking goes back to the image of black men as “super-predators,” a term coined in the ’90s to describe the prevalent depictions of young, black males as depraved, brutal, and violent. The image of black men as a public safety threat is reflected in overly harsh criminal justice policies, including zero-tolerance discipline in schools and media depictions of dangerous black criminals. These negative associations are so embedded in our culture that research indicates you don’t have to be racist, nor do you have to intentionally discriminate, to harbor implicit racial biases. So what happens is even well-intentioned (and seemingly unbiased) teachers and principals can perceive their young, black students as disruptive and threatening to the classroom and school safety. Continue reading

Common Standards Will Allow Us to Assess What’s Working and What’s Not

Sometimes curriculum is determined by states, sometimes by districts or schools, and sometimes by individual teachers. Sometimes curriculum is driven by nationally published textbooks that are made available to teachers, sometimes by elaborate district-level scope-and-sequence guides, and sometimes by what teachers come up with over the summer.

To some extent, all of this rich stew of experimentation and innovation is part of the local control of schools that is very dear to many Americans.

But it sure does make it hard to understand what is going on. Continue reading