US regional diversity policies discriminate against students from big cities

Apparently benign aspirations have their historical origins in concern about high levels of admission of certain minorities, says Kate Eichhorn

January 21, 2020
Source: Getty

Regional diversity is one factor among many that is used to determine which students gain admittance to private colleges in the US. It is an admirable idea. In theory, such policies are designed to bring together, in each incoming class, students from diverse urban communities and rural outposts across the nation. In reality, however, the policies rarely, if ever, result in national institutions, and do little to promote diversity.

Take Harvard. Regional diversity policies notwithstanding, a 2015 article in the Harvard Crimson reported that while only 23.2 per cent of the US population comes from New York, New Jersey, California and Massachusetts, students from these four states made up more than half of the 2018 incoming class at Harvard University.

But this doesn’t mean that regional diversity policies have no impact. Urban populations, especially those in the north-east, are disproportionately impacted by them. And, presumably, this has always been the intended – if not clearly stated – purpose.

Consider the policies’ origins. By the 1920s, elite colleges in the north-east were beginning to fret about the high number of admitted Jewish students. This prompted Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell to propose capping Jewish admits at 15 per cent of the total (the proposal was later rejected). Around the same time, Harvard and other elite north-eastern colleges recognised another trend: an exceptionally high number of admitted students were graduates of just a few highly selective public high schools in New York City, including Stuyvesant High School.

Ivy League colleges started to alter their admissions criteria to consider a host of other factors beyond grades, ostensibly to diversify admissions. Part of this effort included establishing scholarships for students from under-represented regions, such as the South and the Midwest.

Although such regional diversity initiatives were not overtly antisemitic or xenophobic, it was likely not a coincidence that they emerged when they did. Since there have always been more Jewish and minority students in New York City than Oklahoma City, regional diversity was a convenient way to make it more difficult for minorities to gain seats at elite universities in the north-east.

Decades later, regional diversity continues to shape US college admissions. While the impacted populations have changed over time (in 2020, Chinese American students, who now make up the majority of students at specialised high schools in New York City, are most likely to be impacted), the result is more or less the same. Elite universities are still able to pit high-achieving minorities in densely populated urban areas against each other for a limited number of seats.

I recently attended a financial aid information session at my daughter’s school – one of just eight specialised high schools in New York City, where many of the city’s most competitive students complete their high school diplomas. At the standing-room-only workshop, a college financial adviser had one piece of advice for the parents in the room: “Convince your kid to apply to a school outside the north-east. Yale, Cornell and even nearby liberal arts colleges like Vassar and Williams can only take a certain number of kids from New York City.” He also emphasised that “if you need financial aid, trust me, you’ll get a lot more money from a school in the South or the Midwest”.

The reaction in the room was palpable. As one parent asked: “If my kid has the grades to get into Cornell or Yale, why should I be forced to send them off to a school in the South?” Everyone agreed that the practice was neither fair nor logical. But as the financial adviser reminded us, regional diversity has never really been on the side of kids graduating from public schools in New York City.

As a parent, the problems associated with sending one’s child further afield for college are obvious. There are higher travel costs. In a country without public healthcare, going out of state also means higher healthcare costs since medical visits invariably entail out-of-network fees. And there is the prospect that getting to your kid in an emergency will be a lot more difficult than it needs to be.

As a faculty member, I also have reservations about the value of sending undergraduate-age students thousands of miles from home to attend college. In my experience, moving away to attend college is generally a good idea, but you don’t need to go nearly so far to reap the benefits.

Over the past decade, I’ve watched hundreds of kids from other regions of the country adjust to living in Manhattan, where my college is based. While some students attend my college by choice, others arrive because they got a better financial aid package than they were offered by comparable colleges closer to home. It’s not always a bad experience. Some students flourish thousands of miles from home, but many others flounder as they struggle to adjust not only to leaving home for the first time but also to a new region, culture and climate.

Regional diversity’s troubling origins, disproportionately negative impact on diverse urban communities and questionable link to student success all offer compelling reasons to rethink this established practice.

Kate Eichhorn is associate professor and director of culture and media studies at The New School in New York City.

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Print headline: US regional diversity drive shuts out big city students

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