April 23-May 27, 2004
Vol. 34, Issue 8
Back Issues
‘We want to see results!’
Board of Visitors calls for progress on diversity issues
Adams sees program review as an engine of progress
Senate to students: Reject lying and cheating in your midst
Headlines @ U.Va.
Faculty Actions
U.Va. digital history center reaches out to Virginia schools
It’s Personal: An aspiring group of teachers makes learning meaningful
Casteen: Budget stalemate won’t close University
Wise leadership
WHTJ marks Brown anniversary
Feast for the soul: Sufi devotional music of Pakistan
Talk to cover Health System’s master plan
Bowen urges ‘class-based affirmative action’
Bowen urges ‘class-based affirmative action’
Educator says college admission snumbers for youth from poor families still low
William Bowen
Photo by Kathy Kayser
To 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

The 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, Access UVa, and its ongoing efforts on diversity issues.

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

The University’s new financial aid plan, Access UVa, intends to help low-income students, as well as middle-income students, by meeting 100 percent of need and limiting their debt.

Although 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. When fully
implemented, the program will also provide one-on-one counseling to prospective and incoming students on financial aid and planning, she added.

“We 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 low-
income student who does not complete the financial aid process and does not realize what the award could have been,” Hubbard said.

“We believe that there are financial concerns, and we believe that Access UVa will counter them.”

Looking 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 families compared to those from high-income families.

Bowen and research associate Martin Kurzweil pursued a key question: “Are 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 aid or beef up a college application. An admissions advantage could begin helping low-income applicants almost immediately, he said.

“Less 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.

“But so is enhancing educational opportunities for those among us who have had to overcome barriers of all kinds, related to having grown up outside the reaches 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 action 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 admissions decision-making.

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 numbers of minority citizens to take leadership positions in all areas of society and national life. Bowen tied this view 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.”

The University-wide lecture series, supported by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello, is held every two years. The event also kicked off a year of activities celebrating the U.Va. Curry School of Education’s 2004-05 centennial.



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