How Uncle Sam gives a leg-up on the learning ladder

Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education
December 9, 2005

Equalising educational opportunity, especially access to college, is an old concern in America, but it has recently acquired a new twist. A movement is afoot to extend existing "affirmative action" policies - admissions preferences for minorities, particularly black and Hispanic Americans - to all low-income and first-generation college students.

Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education is part of this movement. Its lead author, the economist and former Princeton University president William Bowen, heads the Mellon Foundation, which he has made a research base for studies of higher education. His co-authors are former Mellon colleagues.

The book is a mine of information on who gets what and why in American higher education. It includes a historical chapter and a comparative case study of Britain's journey to top-up fees, as well as an appendix (by others) on the University of Cape Town before and after apartheid.

Although the authors like the British Government's provision for tuition-fee loans repaid through a graduate tax, they compare our system of university funding unfavourably with the one in the US. They believe that the variety of public and private funding in the US, along with varied tuition fees and student-aid packages, gives better support for wide access ("equity") as well as excellence.

They do worry, though, that too much student aid goes to those who do not need it, as colleges and states use scholarships to compete for talent. Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education is not a flawless guide to the US system, but it can help us think about what to borrow and what not to borrow as we move in that direction.

The book's main thesis is that educational equity and excellence are interdependent. At a macro level, the authors' case is strong, though not new. In devastating detail they show how disadvantages pile up in the lives of low-income Americans, depriving them of educational opportunities and "college preparedness". Giving them a better deal would enrich society by developing the nation's talent pool and producing leaders from varying backgrounds to match the country's growing diversity. The authors call, rather unclearly, for bigger state payments to poor school districts, along with local and college-led initiatives in disadvantaged schools.

Turning to the higher education system, the authors praise its quality, which they find almost perfectly compatible with expanded access. They bias their case in defining quality mainly by quantity - by degrees given as a proportion of the population. And they undermine their quality claim by admitting that most state colleges, which educate the bulk of bachelor-degree students, are very underfunded.

While briefly conceding that "many students" do not grow much intellectually, the authors do not pick out distinctive weaknesses and strengths of undergraduate teaching. They make no mention of courses, often at big universities, where reams of petty tests and assignments "make you work hard but not think hard" (as some of my students have put it on returning from a year in the US). But nor do they specially commend the small undergraduate "liberal arts colleges" that are often the jewels of American college teaching.

The authors' most trenchant findings and proposals concern admission policies at elite colleges and universities, which usually require high scores on SATs or other tests. Among applicants with the same scores, they find that white low-income applicants get no special admission treatment, positive or negative - no plus, that is, for having come so far despite adversity, though the colleges claim to seek socially diverse student bodies.

By contrast, elite colleges give admissions preferences to minorities, athletes, "early-decision" candidates (applicants who commit early to one college) and "legacies" (children of alumni). Athletes get the biggest boost, followed by minorities. The authors would retain minority preferences, eliminate preferences for athletes and early-decision candidates and reduce, not eliminate, legacy preferences. Here, they concede that there is a conflict between equity and excellence: favouring legacies is unfair, but alumni donations are important to fund quality.

The authors propose giving to low-income non-minority students the same preference enjoyed by legacies. This, they estimate, would increase the proportion of low-income students (those from the poorest quartile of families) from 9.2 per cent to 13.8 per cent in their sample of 18 mostly private leading institutions. The increase, they claim, would be academically painless for the colleges, as it could be done simply by accepting more of the low-income high-test scorers who are turned away.

Nothing is said about the kinds of high scorers now rejected who would be admitted under the plan. (Harvard University rejects half its applicants with perfect SAT scores in favour of students with somewhat lower scores who look more lively and interesting.) Nor are the authors much interested in recruiting to elite colleges increased numbers of disadvantaged students whose ability and potential are not reflected in test scores to the detriment of richer students who often raise their scores by buying extra test-prep tutoring. The book endorses community "access programs" guiding low-income and minority students towards college, but it claims, with little evidence, that elite colleges already do plenty of outreach to disadvantaged schools and students.

Giving an admissions "tip" to low-income high-score students would, the authors estimate, increase the colleges' financial-aid (bursary) budgets by 12 per cent. They do not say where the money would come from. Much of it, presumably, would come from cuts in spending on courses and facilities, a nettle not grasped by the book.

For all its gaps, Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education is a milestone of scholarship on higher education issues. It is, though, very much an establishment book, assiduously polite to university leaders and making no radical demands on the system.

Rupert Wilkinson is emeritus professor of American studies and history, Sussex University.

Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education

Author - William G. Bowen, Martin A. Kurzweil and Eugene M. Tobin in collaboration with Susanne C. Pichler
Publisher - University of Virginia Press
Pages - 453
Price - £20.50
ISBN - 0 8139 2350 6

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