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Why the Meritocracy Avoids Low-Income Students

by Kirsten Jacobsen | University of Iowa

F Posted in: College, Voices P Posted on: May 30, 2011
Kirsten Jacobsen Kirsten Jacobsen

There are more assorted condiments in your fridge than there is food; more used coffee grounds littering the counters than packets of ramen or boxes of saltines. No longer able to defer it, you are forced to go grocery shopping with the paltry fumes in your bank account. But there’s no Whole Foods or Dean & Deluca in your future – you are strictly Wal-Mart, most likely for the next few decades of your life.

Partly due to impossible college tuition costs, and partially thanks to your low-income background, you are paying many a pretty penny to attend a public four-year university (probably in your home state). For students like this, getting accepted to and paying for an Ivy League education is as likely as getting hit by a lighting strike while winning the lottery – twice.

But don’t colleges admit students through a system of blind meritocracy? Not quite. To be offered one of the few spots at an elite college, you need astonishingly high grades, an impressive resume of activities, rock-solid connections, sufficient funds that more than cover your tuition, minority status, or any combination of the above. How many straight-A students from Keokuk, IA or the south side of Chicago are likely to get accepted at Brown, Pell Grants in tow?

As reported last week by David Leonhardt of the New York Times, “many of the most capable low- and middle-income students attend community colleges or less selective four-year colleges close to their home. Doing so makes them less likely to graduate from college at all, research has shown.”

For the 2009-10 school year, the average cost of attending a private four-year college (such as an Ivy League school) per year was $26,129, according to statistics compiled by the College Board group. And the average cost of tuition at a public, in-state four-year college or university? $7,050. It doesn’t take exceptional SAT scores or advanced placement math skills to deduce that Choice A leaves a student reeling in debt until his or her late 40’s, while sub-optimal Choice B is safer.

Those numbers don’t include room and board or school supply costs; nor do they account for the last two decades of nearly constant tuition hikes across the nation. For the 2010-11 school year, both categories of tuition jumped 4.5 and 7.9 percent, respectively.  Suffice to say, with the enduring fiscal “crisis” and Congress’ seeming inability to fund higher education and America’s out-sized military-industrial complex at the same time, federal financial aid for low-income learners won’t be increasing at those same rates.

During the last school year, in fact, some $154 billion in government aid was distributed through FAFSA and government scholarships to secondary school students across the country. The average four-year college undergraduate received around $11,500, according to the College Board website.

Yet students from poorer areas of the nation or who are attempting to break out of relative poverty and gain a high-quality education are basically out of luck for two reasons: First, the obvious fact that $11,500 in loaner bucks hardly makes a dent in yearly tuition that is as high as $45,000 at some private schools.

And secondly, the Ivies and their ilk just aren’t interested in low-income students.

In his article, Leonhardt quoted political scientist Anthony Marx, the president of Amherst College, who was just finishing up his final year at the prestigious Massachusetts school. As one who believes that colleges are losing out by “overlooking lower-income students,” Marx noted:

We claim to be part of the American dream and a system based on merit and opportunity and talent. Yet if at the top places, two-thirds of the students come from the top quartile and only 5 percent come from the bottom quartile, then we are actually part of the problem of the growing economic divide rather than the solution.

Marx’s own initiatives at Amherst helped the school boost its number of low-income students phenomenally – now it’s time for other Ivy League and exclusive elite schools to do the same. Increasing the number of Pell Grants available and consciously giving extra attention to minority students have already started what will need to be a sizable overhaul of the existing admissions status quo. (If the children of alumni are given special advantages, why aren’t exceptional students from impoverished urban or rural areas given a hand up as well?)

Additionally, efforts must be made to increase the amount of school-specific financial aid available for the most needy. An undergraduate who completed his or her degree last year at Random Private University of America, paying the average four-year institute amount, owes about $109,000 in student loan money. That means this exemplary student will be paying off school (at a rate of $200 per month) until he or she is 46.

But there are other reasons to up the percentages of low-income students at the nation’s highest-quality campuses as well.

Not only will this diversify the stiff atmosphere of equally well-off classmates, it will help the American economy tremendously in the long run. The country’s schools and graduation rates have been in a slow decline over the last two decades; to say the economy is in a similar decline would be an understatement. Giving more deserving students the chance to change their economic futures, enhance their world-views, and bring fresh expertise and vigor to the American workplace are undeniable benefits of increasing the number of low-income students at elite colleges and universities.

Not to mention, you might finally be able to move past a steady diet of ramen noodles once employers see your degree from Random Private University of America.

Kirsten Jacobsen Kirsten Jacobsen Kirsten Jacobsen graduated with a double-major in both political science and journalism at the University of Iowa. She is interested primarily in international affairs, contemporary American politics and media, and human rights issues.

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