Redefining campus diversity

Selective schools need to be vigilant in their effort to bring in more low-income kids.

Across America, the nation's select colleges are expanding their concept of diversity. It's not just about improving racial and ethnic balance on campus, but also increasing the percentage of low-income students – which is even lower than for minorities. Both are important goals.

Politics and the courts are pushing elite schools toward this broader approach.

In June, it will be five years since the Supreme Court gave the University of Michigan law school a pass on its practice of using race as one tool to consider in admissions. But this qualified OK on affirmative action is tenuous. Given the justices now on the bench, a new challenge could well be overturned. Such a case may grow out of a recent suit against the University of Texas at Austin.

At the same time, political momentum is building to ban race as a consideration in public education and hiring. This fall Colorado, Missouri, Arizona, and Nebraska will put such initiatives on ballots. If past voter approval in California, Washington, and Michigan is any guide, the four measures will pass, and handily.

Opening the university gates to make it possible for more low-income students to attend still means shutting out otherwise qualified students. But voters perceive discrimination based on income as more acceptable than racial preferences. And there are no legal hurdles.

Attuned, selective colleges and universities are making a greater effort to improve income mix and still keep an eye on racial diversity.

In recent months, Harvard, Stanford, and other elite schools have announced free tuition for students whose families earn less than $60,000 (more in some cases).

Several private foundations have begun programs to match smart but poor kids with elite schools.

Last fall, 19 of the country's largest public university systems pledged to halve the achievement gap for minority and low-income students by improving their college attendance and graduation rates.

And the nation now has a proven model in Texas, which has found a legal way to increase income, geographic, and racial variety – and academic performance. The University of Texas guarantees admission to the top 10 percent of state high schools. It sweeps rural and urban schools, poor and wealthy, minorities and whites. (The above-mentioned lawsuit challenges the part of admissions that still uses racial preferences).

These efforts are encouraging, but the challenge is daunting.

A 2003 study by the Century Foundation found that African-Americans and Hispanics each constitute only 6 percent of incoming freshmen at the nation's 146 most select schools (as defined by the Barron's guide). Yet the percent of blacks and Hispanics among 18-year-olds is more than twice that. Income disparity was even worse: only 3 percent of all the freshmen were from the poorest quarter of the population.

It's also expensive to pay for poor kids and then follow through with the extra skills help they may need, especially when state budgets are being squeezed and a recession may be settling in.

The trend over time is that more students of color will graduate from US high schools, and many will be low-income. Higher education must be vigilant in moving them onto and up the learning ladder.

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