Looking at the issue of access to higher education in selective California public
institutions over the past few years is a depressing experience. The number of enrolled
low-income students has decreased, and all indicators seem to suggest that the situation
could even be worsening.
The first point that must be understood is that while institutional size has remained
fairly constant, and freshman classes in the most selective institutions have not increased
appreciably, the number of high school graduates in California has grown dramatically. This
growth, labeled Tidal Wave II, in turn has led to an increased demand for enrollment at all
selective campuses, with spillover demand at those campuses which in the past had been
able to accommodate all who met published minimums for admission.
As a result, campuses have had to turn away more and more applicants relative to the
size of the demand. The impact of this on the lower-income student will become apparent
as we look at more of the elements at work in this complex interplay of variables such as
demand, preparation, income, quality of performance and institutional size.
As the number of applicants has risen, so too has the desirability of certain campuses.
Hence, with a higher percentage of admitted students going on to enroll, many campuses
have been able to reduce the number of students
they admit in order to achieve their desired
enrollment. This situation is especially true
at the most selective institutions.
In those cases where institutions want to
increase enrollments, the number
of admitted students has indeed
increased. With higher yields,
however, that number has grown
less than would be needed to
admit all of those interested in
It is important to take into
consideration the relationship
between the issues of selectivity
and access. During the admissions
review process, most institutions look carefully at the quality of a
student's academic preparation. This is as it should be; the better the
student performs, the more likely it is that the student will be admitted in a
We know that student performance is correlated highly with the quality
of high school preparation. The tenth and 11th grades form the core of
colleges' admissions decisions. In those institutions where the demand is
extreme, the academic work undertaken in the senior year is considered
also. The better the curriculum in the high school, the better the student's
course choices will be.
Students do not spring full-blown in the tenth grade ready for college
preparatory courses. Preparation begins well before the sophomore year in
high school. Excellent students come from a long line of good curricular
choices and a readiness for college preparation. These are definitely related
to parental expectations, which guide and pressure schools into offering the
courses that best prepare students for college.
Of course, it also is true that the teachers in high schools with enriched
curricula tend to be among the best available. Here again we find the self-fulfilling
prophecy: Good teachers and good curricula are the most significant
factors in generating well-prepared students.
It does not take a great leap of imagination to realize that where the
parental pressure for college preparatory curricula is absent, or where resources are low, or
where the problems of gangs and criminal elements exist, or where overcrowding creates
multiple tracks or year-round school calendars, proportionately fewer outstanding teachers
can be found, less college preparation is available, and greater educational disadvantage
reigns. Fewer students from these high schools go on to college at all, let alone to selective
institutions where the academic competitiveness of applicants drives up the quality of
preparation required for students to be admitted.
A correlation between family income and quality of curricular choices is apparent. A second
correlation-between income and scores on standardized admissions tests, most significantly
the SAT-is also closely related. The obvious connection between the two is
Statistics released by College Board and Educational Testing Service, the author and
administrator of the SAT exams, illustrate this correlation in devastating ways. When the
element of the student's ethnicity or race is
added, the results are even more disturbing. At
highly selective campuses, on average, African
American students who come from families
with the highest income score below white
students from families with the lowest income.
The two most critical indicators of a student's
potentiality for success in college-performance
on a quality curriculum and standardized test
scores-are, on average, going to be lower for
the economically disadvantaged student.
When all of this is put together, it should
come as no surprise that the number of low-income
students in selective institutions is
dropping. Further, as costs go up in the selective
private schools, those flagship public institutions
with lower fees become far more attractive to
students who are most likely to be going on to
graduate and professional degrees and are facing years of educational bills. This is causing a
great shift in the demand at these schools. As a result, the average income of all students
seems to be increasing, even in selective public institutions.
Determining the average income of newly enrolled students is difficult, if not impossible.
Because students generally are asked to provide family income only when they
apply for financial aid, any figures have to come from that group and not the entire class.
However, it is reasonably safe to assume that most students who do not apply for aid come
from families that are financially better off than those who ask for aid.
Given this assumption, data from just one campus, UCLA, reveals some interesting
facts. Comparing figures from 1996-'97-when California voters approved Proposition 209,
ending affirmative action in public university admissions-to those from 2000-'01 shows
that, while fewer students applied for financial aid, the average annual income of those
applying rose well over $15,000 in four years (from $56,350 to $72,100).
Thus, slightly fewer low-income students are being admitted, and those who do gain
access come from relatively wealthier families than those who were admitted just four
years ago. Regardless of whether this represents the normal increase of income over this
period or is reflective of the connection between family income and academic quality, the
result is the same: a less diverse, and wealthier, student body.
The most economically disadvantaged students in California are finding it more and
more necessary to begin their education in the community college system, where fees are
considerably lower. However, experience has shown that these students transfer to
baccalaureate institutions for completion of their degrees at an infinitesimally low rate.
While financial aid is available at the four year colleges and universities, the competition
for places and increases in yield have effectively reduced the number of low-income
students who obtain admission. While the rise in income of all students and their families
could be at play here, enrollments seem to indicate that the
absolute numbers of the lowest-income students-often correlated
with underrepresented minorities and students of color-are less
than they have been in the recent past.
Enlightened colleges and universities do look beyond the
numbers in their admissions procedures. They include elements of
disadvantage, personal circumstances, hardships, special talents and
responses to adversity as part of the review and decision-making
process. But while considering these factors is important in helping
to diversify the student body, many white or Asian students also
have a claim for admissions on the basis of having overcome
adversity or having special talents to offer.
In the days of affirmative action in California, it was possible to
be sure that most underrepresented students with excellent
preparation were admitted. Now, with increased demand and
increased quality of preparation from most applicants, that is no
longer possible. At the other end of the spectrum, lower-income students
who offer lower academic strengths but still meet basic minimums
have begun to present somewhat higher incomes in recent
years and, in the case of California, large numbers of recent immigrant
Asian American students with outstanding academic records.
No amount of expanding criteria can ensure diversity if the
applicant pool does not reflect that diversity in all aspects. The total
number of very able Asian and white students far exceeds the
number of underrepresented minority applicants. For example, enrollments
for the University of California system in fall 1999 were
29.2 percent Asian American, second only to whites (43.95 percent).
UCLA figures for fall 2000 show an increase in Asian American
enrollment to more than 36 percent: There were 9,780 white
students, 8,064 Asian American students but only 4,472 total
The number of middle- to high-income applicants is much larger than the number of
low-income applicants. The performance of higher-income students outstrips that of lower-income
students. The desire to attend is no more or less among any category of race,
income level or ethnicity. Regardless of how much an institution wishes to ensure diversity
of representation in all categories of interest, unless it is possible to give more weight to
those categories, only a limited range of diversity will be achieved.