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National CrossTalk Fall 2001
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

1 of 3 Stories

After Affirmative Action
Access, diversity and selective public institutions

By Rae Lee Siporin

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 attending.

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 high-demand situation.

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 income.

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 underrepresented students.

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.

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