Accessibility and Admission

Neha Mukherjee, the editor for smerconish.com, is a rising sophomore at Brown University. She is a Pre-Medical student concentrating in Political Science and has a profound interest in journalism. A recent graduate of the Episcopal Academy, she was born and raised in the Philadelphia suburbs.

Neha Mukherjee, the editor for smerconish.com, is a rising sophomore at Brown University. She is a Pre-Medical student concentrating in Political Science and has a profound interest in journalism. A recent graduate of the Episcopal Academy, she was born and raised in the Philadelphia suburbs.

What is the “American Dream?” Each person may have a different definition. For many, their vision of the “American Dream” includes the chance that their children can attain a better socio-economic position than themselves. 

Today, though, it seems that this can only be commonly achieved with a college degree. A 2016 article in The Economics of Education Review revealed that those with a bachelor’s degree make over $800,000 more in average income in their lives than those with only a high school diploma. In a country that prides itself on the “American Dream,” it is ironic that it is so difficult for low- income students to gain access to higher education and break out of their cycle of poverty. 

There are many aspects to the disadvantages that low-income students face in attaining a college education, arising in both accessibility and admission. 

Setbacks for low-income students start far before they actually have to pay for college. Obviously there exists a lack of monetary resources for low-income families trying to send their children to college. Yet, often it is the lack of information about available opportunities that acts as the largest barrier. Few low-income students even apply to high-ranking colleges. A study completed by Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery in The National Bureau of Economic Research discovered that for every 8-15 high-achieving, high- income students applying to a high-ranking college, there is only one low-income, high- achieving students applying. Their data showed that even when very prestigious institutions cost much less, low-income, high achievers still attended two-year colleges or lower ranking institutions. They concluded that a lack of information and little encouragement was responsible for the small number of low-income applicants to high ranking universities. If low-income students are not given information about financial aid opportunities, then how can they be expected to apply to prestigious universities or apply to college at all? 

Even when low-income students decide to apply to a university, it can be difficult for them to gain admission. Amongst bribery and scandal that have more recently been brought to light, there are also built in disadvantages that make the chances of admission even slimmer for low- income students. These include legacy advantage, donor potential, and dependence on standardized testing.  Specifically, the SAT has sparked recent debate in its validity and fairness in being used in the college admission process. In 2002, Lani Guinier, a Harvard Law professor coined the term “the wealth test” in describing the SAT. The data does not fail to support her claim, as evidence shows that higher SAT scores are correlated with higher family income. Among other factors, some point to the ability to acquire SAT tutoring as being responsible for this correlation. While the college board’s new “Adversity Score” may add some social context to an SAT score, low-income students will still have a piece of their application that is less desirable to that of high-income students when they are evaluated in college admission. 

In addition, the current policy of affirmative action, while striving for racial diversity, may not be properly serving low- income students. As observed by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Chair of Harvard African and African- American studies department: “The black kids who come to Harvard or Yale are middle class. Nobody else gets through.”  According to an article in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, “...Ivy League colleges’ success in admitting large numbers of black students is a poor surrogate for a successful commitment to enrolling low-income students.” What is being described is the idea that affirmative action only favors the upper- and middle-class minorities and does not give any advantages to lower class, minority students. Some scholars point to using a form of “class-based affirmative action” where low-income students would become the key beneficiaries in order to attain true socio-economic diversity. Regardless, it is evident that our current method is not properly serving low- income students and many of us are not aware of how admission policies can affect them. 

Without informational resources and a fair chance of admission how can we expect low income students to surpass the financial situations of their families? How is it that we think the “American Dream” is a reality for everyone?