The 20th century has been called the American Century, and one of its leitmotifs was the great leap forward for millions of Americans from poverty into the middle class. In the 1960s and 1970s, the implementation of the Higher Education Act and Pell Grants allowed large numbers of students from low-income families to enter college. In addition, the GI Bill opened wide the doors of higher education to a host of veterans who otherwise would never have been able to consider a college education.
This increasing democratization in access to higher education has made us a richer nation. Now, however, our nation sees the gap between rich and poor grow even wider while the entry to higher education threatens to grow narrower. What accounts for this slowly closing door? Not public policy, but universities themselves as they seek to increase their rank among colleges in popular magazines.
The rankings we see in magazines place too much emphasis on selective admissions and not enough on a university's relative success in graduating students most in need. Recent articles in the press have described the small number of low-income students at the nation's most prestigious colleges, the same colleges that generally enjoy the highest rankings. If you think this is a coincidence, think again. It's a little too systematic. Rankings are based on a number of factors, including six-year graduation rate performance. What then are the incentives for a university to admit students who are typically less prepared, have higher unmet financial need and require additional services to graduate?
What many people might not realize is that it is possible to predict what percentage of students will graduate within a six-year period by looking at their family income. The statistics on the impact of family socio-economic status on educational attainment are downright startling. According to a U. …