A Different Kind of Diversity

Today's NYT reports on elite colleges trying to introduce more economic diversity into their classrooms.  An excerpt:

The discussion in the States of Poverty seminar here at Amherst College was getting a little theoretical. Then Anthony Abraham Jack, a junior from Miami, asked pointedly, "Has anyone here ever actually seen a food stamp?"

To Mr. Jack, unlike many of his classmates, food stamps are not an abstraction. His family has had to use them in emergencies. His mother raised three children as a single parent and earns $26,000 a year as a school security guard. That is just a little more than half the cost of a year's tuition, room and board, fees and other expenses at Amherst, which for Mr. Jack's class was close to $48,000.

So when Mr. Jack, now 22 and a senior, graduates with honors on May 27, he will not just be the first in his family to earn a college degree, but a success story in the effort by Amherst and a growing number of elite colleges to open their doors to talented low-income students.

Concerned that the barriers to elite institutions are being increasingly drawn along class lines, and wanting to maintain some role as engines of social mobility, about two dozen schools — Amherst, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, the University of Virginia, Williams and the University of North Carolina, among them — have pushed in the past few years to diversify economically.

They are trying tactics like replacing loans with grants and curtailing early admission, which favors the well-to-do and savvy. But most important, Amherst, for instance, is doing more than giving money to low-income students; it is recruiting them and taking their socioeconomic background — defined by family income, parents' education and occupation level — into account when making admissions decisions. . . .

For Mr. Jack, there were adjustments at this college, where half the students are affluent enough that their parents pay tuition without any aid from Amherst.

He did not let it bother him, he said, when wealthier classmates blithely inquired about the best clubs in Miami — as if he would know, Mr. Jack said dryly — before flying off to his hometown for spring break. Mr. Jack could afford to go home only at Christmas, and the end of the year, when Amherst paid his plane fare.

The article also points out the uncomfortable fact that traditional, race-based affirmative action benefits mostly middle and upper-class minorities.

One of the challenges these colleges will face is preparing economically and educationally disadvantaged students for the rigor of their classrooms. Many kids who've never attended fancy prep schools or received expensive after-school tutoring or perfected their study skills will have some catching up to do, and colleges should be aggressive in acknowledging that gap and offering academic assistance. It would be a huge disservice to those students to throw them into the classroom and expect them to fit right in with a bunch of kids who in high school were reading John Locke and taking Latin classes to help them with their vocabulary and conducting research projects with names like "The Influence of DNA Mismatch Repair on the Types of p53 Mutations Found in Msh2 Null and Msh2/Atm Double Null Transformants."

Congratulations and good luck to Anthony.