Bowen urges ‘class-based
Educator says college admission snumbers for
youth from poor families still low
Photo by Kathy Kayser
close the gap in application and enrollment between poor
and affluent students, William Bowen says higher
education institutions should give poor applicants an admissions
advantage similar to that given to minorities,
legacies and athletes.
By Anne Bromley
visit of noted educator and affirmative-action supporter William
Bowen to U.Va. earlier this month was timely,
considering the University’s new financial aid plan,
UVa, and its ongoing efforts on diversity
Bowen, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a
former president of Princeton, is the co-author of the
groundbreaking 1998 book, “The Shape
of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University
Admissions,” written with former Harvard University president Derek Bok.
During his visit to U.Va., Bowen updated the topic of this
book in one of the three lectures he gave on “Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education,” as
part of the second Thomas Jefferson Foundation Distinguished Lecture Series.
At the center of his talks were new findings about the socio-
economic status of students drawn from a Mellon Foundation
study, led by Bowen, and his call to employ “class-based affirmative action” for the poorest
applicants. Bowen, an economist, said the data show that the rhetoric of inclusiveness
has not actually led a significant number of youth from poor families into elite
colleges and universities.
|How Access UVa intends to help
University’s new financial aid plan, Access
intends to help low-income students, as well as middle-income
students, by meeting 100 percent of need and limiting
the University admissions policy is need-blind, which
guest speaker William Bowen said results in the turning
away of too many low-income students, U.Va.’s new
financial aid program does address Bowen’s concern
about increasing the number of low-income applicants,
said Yvonne Hubbard, director of Student Financial Services.
implemented, the program will also provide one-on-one counseling to prospective
and incoming students on financial aid and planning, she added.
anticipate that if students know about Access UVa and
know that their financial status should not hinder them,
we will see an increase in the number of applications
from lower-income students,” Hubbard said.
The effort will expand outreach to prospective and incoming students to assist
them in planning and applying for financial aid. “It’s often the
income student who does not complete the financial aid process and does not
realize what the award could have been,” Hubbard said.
believe that there are financial concerns, and we believe
that Access UVa will counter them.”
at 19 selective schools, including U.Va., Bowen’s admissions study
shows that elite institutions still could be considered “bastions of privilege” rather
than “engines of opportunity” — because of the
wide gap in application and enrollment between students from low-income
to those from high-income families.
Bowen and research associate Martin Kurzweil pursued a key
the claims of ‘equity’ really being met through a need-blind approach
in a society in which students are so stratified by socio-economic status in
their pre-college years?” Their answer: No. Higher education institutions
should do more, Bowen said, and the most direct approach would be to give applicants
from poor families an admissions advantage similar to that given to minorities,
legacies or recruited athletes.
Lower-income students too often do not receive information
at school or from parents about tests such as the SAT,
or how to pursue financial
up a college application. An admissions advantage could begin helping
low-income applicants almost immediately, he said.
than a third of all students from families in the bottom income
quartile even took the SAT, as compared with more than two-thirds
of those from families
in the top quartile,” he said. Fifty-two percent of students in the Mellon
study from high-income families went to the most expensive colleges, compared
to 20 percent of the low-income students.
Though family income is clearly a factor in applicants’ preparedness, admissions
are “need-blind,” forcing low-income students to compete for admission
with wealthier classmates.
“Economic affirmative action” would not and should not replace the
consideration of race, Bowen stressed. Too many well-qualified minority applicants
from higher income levels would be shut out if only socio-economic status were
considered, the research showed.
Bowen concluded that he continues to “feel strongly that sustaining effective
programs of race-sensitive admissions is of paramount importance to the achievement
of the equity objective — and, for that matter, to the future of America.
so is enhancing educational opportunities for those among us
who have had to overcome barriers of all kinds, related to
having grown up outside
of the economic and educational elites.”
Reiterating the most crucial findings of his earlier
work on race and admissions, Bowen said there is no
evidence that affirmative
is somehow harmful
to beneficiaries — they performed “very well” and reported being
happy with their college choice; they are more successful in careers and also
perform more civic service than minorities who don’t go to college.
The research also deflates the argument of “reverse discrimination,” he
said. “Race-sensitive admissions policies have not reduced appreciably
the chances of well-qualified white applicants to gain admission to the most
selective colleges and universities — in many situations, recruited athletes
receive larger admissions ‘breaks’ and displace more other applicants
than do minority students.”
Bowen analyzed the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinions in the two recent Michigan
affirmative-action cases, upholding the consideration of race as one factor in
The court not only upheld the rationale for the
educational benefits of a diverse student body,
he said, but
also affirmed the goal
of preparing large
of minority citizens to take leadership positions
in all areas of society and national life. Bowen
to “sentiments expressed by Jefferson,” and
quoted the opinion: “In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy
in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be
visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity.”
Bowen disagreed with Sandra Day O’Connor’s comment that she expected it will not be necessary 25
years from now to use racial preference in admission. It will take longer than
that to close “the preparation gap … a daunting task,” he
said. Over the past 15 to 20 years, secondary
schools have drifted back to being more
segregated in both the South and the North.
With particular relevance to the Curry School
and its education of future teachers, Bowen
declared that it
is “perhaps the single most important goal … to
bring the quality of primary and secondary schools attended by minority students
up to the levels of those attended by whites and [some] Asians.”
University-wide lecture series, supported by the Thomas
Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates
held every two years. The event also kicked off a year of
activities celebrating the U.Va. Curry School of Education’s