Bob Neal: The Countryman: The fight for a key path to success | #students | #parents


Bob Neal

The path to economic success in America is narrow and all too often winds through ivy-walled campuses. To their credit, many elite universities and colleges have tried hard to broaden access to those ivied walls.

But not broad enough, say five graduates of those schools who are suing 16 elite colleges for favoring the rich (presumably white) applicants.

The schools, the plaintiffs argued, colluded against students from low-income families by jointly reviewing applications for financial aid and by secretly finding ways to admit applicants whose families have big bucks.

The New York Times reported this week that the schools are allowed to work together in screening financial aid applications so long as they don’t consider a student’s “need” for a scholarship. Does that sound odd to you? Financial aid separated from need?

Not as odd as you might think. Miami University of Ohio, where I taught (1978-80), boasted that it didn’t consider need in awarding financial aid. Campus cynics called this the “Keep Miami white” policy, and back then, the student body at Ohio’s so-called “Public Ivy” was monochromatic. That one color, of course, was white.

All of this may seem a bit esoteric, considering that three-quarters of students attend public colleges and that few of the other quarter attend elite private schools. But to walk the path to success, nothing beats punching your ticket at an elite school, so access to them is a key to America’s future. And the elites often write templates for other colleges.

As enrollments decline nationally — down by more than 1.2 million (6.5%) since the pandemic began — ensuring fair access becomes evermore crucial. Note: The University of Maine defied the trend, with record enrollment in 2021, nearly 12,000, more than 37% of them from out-of-state and more than 15% non-white. USM enrollment dropped 7.6%.

Back to the lawsuit. Four schools being sued are in New England: Brown, Dartmouth, MIT and Yale. The other 12: Cal Tech, University of Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Emory, Georgetown, Northwestern, Notre Dame, University of Pennsylvania, Rice and Vanderbilt. (Disclosure: I attended Vanderbilt for three semesters, completing most of the PhD coursework, but I left without finishing. Life was waiting to be lived.)

This new lawsuit sorta brings us full circle from 1978, when Allan Bakke sued the University of California at Davis for discriminating against him, a white male, in admission to medical school. He sorta won when the Supreme Court ruled that race could be part of a decision on admission, but not the only one.

Bakke graduated medical school in 1982 and became an anesthesiologist in Minnesota.

After Bakke, 10 states banned considering race in admissions: Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Texas and Washington.

But college administrators, being at least as smart as your average bear, found ways to try to make their enrollments look more like America. For example, in Texas, which dropped the ban in 2003, the top 9% of grads from each high school in the state are automatically admitted to the University of Texas.

Now that we have come full circle, Black, Hispanic and indigenous Americans, among others, may be turning again to the courts so they can walk the path through elite schools.

Since our measure is economic success, finding a path to paying something north of 70 grand a year to punch your ticket is crucial. Even more so because the U.S. ranks 13th in social mobility among 18 nations studied by the Economic Policy Institute. The likelihood of a kid reared in the lowest 25% of family incomes making it to the highest 25% is lower in only the United Kingdom, Italy, Chile and Slovenia.

From first to 12th, the others are Denmark, Norway, Finland, Canada, Australia, Sweden, New Zealand, Germany, Japan, Spain, France and Switzerland.

It’s difficult to imagine the “American Dream” surviving if we continue to hold back talented kids who didn’t choose wealthy parents.

Since Canada ranks fourth in social mobility, let’s look at something done differently there. In Ontario, high school seniors apply to the Ontario University Acceptance Centre, indicating their choice of three schools and/or majors. The applications are sent to the selected universities. The fee for this is about $120 (US), but seniors can apply to more than three programs at $40 (US) more for each program.

This universal application puts applicants on a more equal footing because all university admissions offices receive the same info. I take it that the form has no line for “legacies.”

In this country, one apparent truth continues to shine through, though. If you punch your ticket at an elite college, you may be set for life.

Bob Neal, a public college grad, admires elite schools but wishes fewer of their grads went into finance just to make big bucks by charging fees for moving money around. Neal can be reached at [email protected].


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