Education for me, and for thee

As a pediatrician, I can’t help but feel that education is part of my mandate. As a believer in the importance of an “equality of opportunity“, I can’t help but promote it. So David Leonhart’s column yesterday really got me going:

For all of the other ways that top colleges had become diverse, their student bodies remained shockingly affluent. At the University of Michigan, more entering freshmen in 2003 came from families earning at least $200,000 a year than came from the entire bottom half of the income distribution. At some private colleges, the numbers were even more extreme.

Last week I posted on college completion, and how more children in the top quartile of income with low test scores finished college than children in the bottom quartile of income with high test scores.  This made me feel even worse. In 2003, families who earned at least $200,000 a year comprised 4.37% of the US population. That means that at the University of Michigan, more students came from the top few percentiles of income than from the entire poorest half of the country.

And it was worse at some private colleges.

I went to a small school in Massachusetts called Amherst College. I graduated in a class of 400 or so that I’m sure was likely imbalanced in this way. Therefore, I read with no small amount of pride that my college, and its outgoing President, have been leading the way to try and address this issue:

The effort starts with financial aid. The college has devoted more of its resources to aid, even if the dining halls don’t end up being as fancy as those at rival colleges. Outright grants have replaced most loans, not just for poor students but for middle-class ones. The college has started a scholarship for low-income foreign students, who don’t qualify for Pell Grants. And Amherst officials visit high schools they had never visited before to spread the word.

The college has also started using its transfer program mostly to admit community college students. This step may be the single easiest way for a college to become more meritocratic.

The college has also started using its transfer program mostly to admit community college students. This step may be the single easiest way for a college to become more meritocratic. It’s one reason the University of California campuses in Berkeley, Los Angeles and San Diego are so much more diverse than other top colleges.

Many community colleges have horrifically high dropout rates, but the students who succeed there are often inspiring. They include war veterans, single parents and immigrants who have managed to overcome the odds. At Amherst this year, 62 percent of transfer students came from a community college.

Finally, Mr. Marx says Amherst does put a thumb on the scale to give poor students more credit for a given SAT score. Not everyone will love that policy. “Spots at these places are precious,” he notes. But I find it tough to argue that a 1,300 score for most graduates of Phillips Exeter Academy — or most children of Amherst alumni — is as impressive as a 1,250 for someone from McDowell County, W.Va., or the South Bronx.

The result of these changes is that Amherst has a much higher share of low-income students than almost any other elite college. By itself, of course, Amherst is not big enough to influence the American economy. But its policies could affect the economy if more colleges adopted them.

As the article reports, this all costs money; sometimes doing good things does. But “Amherst has shown that building a better meritocracy is possible“. I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud of my alma mater.

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