In Monday’s New York Times, Jerome Karabel of UC-Berkeley contributed an interesting Op-Ed piece called “The New College Try.” In it, Karabel rails against the top tier universities in the country (and the systems that support them) for failing to provide access for low income students. As an Alumni Schools Committee co-chair, I spend quite a bit of time thinking about college admissions and even talking with high school seniors during their application process. At the June meeting of ASC chairs, I was disappointed to witness some of the privilege perpetuation that Karabel describes. The University of Chicago provides some advantage for the children of graduates, and probably of big donors, but it is working to provide some admissions (and tuition payment) advantages for lower income applicants as well. I’m anxious to see if those efforts are fruitful. Karabel recommends a lottery system for 5-10% of an entering class where applicants who met some high academic threshold would then be selected at random. Schools could then compare those students’ performance to the other 90-95% to see if their admissions processes were good predictors of academic success. That certainly sounds like an interesting study to me.
While I recognize that there’s a problem of access for low income students to top tier universities, focusing on the problems at that point obscures a greater problem – impoverished academic opportunities throughout their school lives for low income students. I’d probably add rural students to the mix too, given the shared problems of securing funding and attracting the best teachers that low income urban schools and rural schools share. Without opportunities during elementary and secondary school to discover their academic interests and strengths, students will not be able to compete come time to apply for college. Poor schools – those that don’t challenge students, that have deteriorating physical resources, that have no community support, etc. – are likely to produce poor students. I wish I had solutions to that particular problem, but I don’t. Perhaps Karabel’s column and its challenges to top tier schools will help remind readers and others who can make a difference that the problems of access are central to our problems of education.