Every year without fail, a well-respected educator comes out against early admission programs, calling them “barriers to keep most low income students out.” This year’s quote is from a recent piece in Inside Higher Ed by Harold O. Levy, the former NYC Schools Chancellor and executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. <https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2017/01/12/discrimination-inherent-early-admissions-programs-essay?>

I have great respect for Dr. Levy and for the significant work done by the Cooke Foundation to advance students of great potential from economically disadvantaged families. But early admission programs are not discriminatory by definition at the bulk of the nation’s 2300 non-profit, four-year colleges and universities. And in fact, they do not have to act against the inclusion of disadvantaged students at the nation’s most prestigious institutions. Here’s why.

While it is true that many low-income students are not aware of early programs because they are first generation and attend high schools where counselors are responsible for 1,000 or more students each, colleges can and do promote Early Decision and Early Action in all of their search communications, on their web sites and in their brochures. And those of us who are committed to enrolling low-income students go out of our way to connect with them and to make them aware of early programs while saving places for them in the regular pool. Pell-eligible students represent 35% of the enrollment at my institution, Drew University, and we have an Early Decision program, so it can be done. Further, these students graduate at the essentially same rate as the other two-thirds of the student body, so they are being served well.

Many highly selective colleges are now test optional in admission, so the fact that low-income students may not have test scores in time for early deadlines is a non-issue at those institutions. And the notion that low-income students can’t commit to enrolling through an Early Decision program because they need financial aid is an equally empty hypothesis. First of all, the early FAFSA allows colleges to award actual aid upon Early Decision admission. Secondly, as every ED institution will tell you, if the aid is not sufficient in the family’s mind, the student will be released from the ED commitment. I always tell students and their parents that they should apply in a binding Early Decision program only if parents know how much they are willing and able to contribute toward college expenses, and if they are not interested in comparing offers from other schools. If they receive enough to make attendance possible, and if the college is the student’s first choice, then the process has successfully concluded. If however, they want to shop for the best deal, then Early Decision is not for them.

In many ways, ED is the best time to apply for financial aid, because colleges do not exhaust their grant resources during the early round. And as I said, if the aid is not sufficient, colleges will release students from the early commitment. This is a “no lose” proposition for the student.

But Dr. Levy presents compelling evidence of the disparity of incomes represented in Early Decision programs:

The Cooke Foundation study found that only 16 percent of high-achieving students from families with annual incomes below $50,000 applied for college admission on an early-decision basis in the 2013-14 academic year. But 29 percent of high-achieving students from families with incomes above $250,000 applied on an early-decision basis. Is it any wonder that so many more upper-income students gain admission?

To be fair, this needs to be put into context. According to the Pew Research Center in a 2014 report, < http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/01/15/college-enrollment-among-low-income-students-still-trails-richer-groups/ > 51% of all low-income students were enrolled in college compared to 81% of all high-income students (low income= bottom 20%; high income = top 20%). In other words, many more high-income students enroll in college in the first place, so it is not surprising that many more high-income students also enroll through Early Decision.

This underscores the real issue for American higher education. We need to spend less time advocating for the elimination of a program (early admission) that attracts higher income students (who, by the way, help to bring in the revenue to support lower income students) and more time – as the Cooke Foundation and many colleges do so well – developing better ways to recruit and support low-income students. The future competiveness of our country depends on it.

 

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New York Governor Cuomo has taken Senator Sanders’ key higher education platform issue – free tuition – and proposed a version for New York residents attending community colleges and CUNY/SUNY institutions with family incomes of $125,000 or less. Who could possibly think this was a bad idea? College prices have increased by 139% over the past 30 years in 2016 dollars while family incomes have increased only 16% during the same period.

There are, however, major issues beyond the estimated $163m annual price tag. SUNY tuition is already significantly subsidized by the State – – $6470 versus an average independent college tuition of approximately $38,000. Low-income students already get “free tuition” with a combination of federal Pell Grants and State TAP awards. There is another $14,000 in fees, room and board that is not addressed by this plan. If the State has $163m extra for higher education, it should first make sure that costs are covered for all low-income students before providing funds for those at higher income levels. While I understand that $21,000 a year at SUNY is a challenge for many families with incomes at the upper range of the Governor’s proposal, it would be significantly more equitable to award need-based grants to those students whose family resources are not sufficient to cover the cost of attendance, rather than giving a $6500 grant to everyone with incomes below a certain level.

In addition, there are over 100 independent not-for-profit colleges and universities in New York. Many of these colleges provide significant need-based financial aid to make college affordable from institutional, state and federal sources. That is becoming an increasingly difficult challenge to meet. Competing against “free” tuition could be the nail in the coffin of some of these institutions, resulting in more students flocking to a “free” SUNY. This will inflate the cost of the program well beyond the initial estimates of $163m.

With a median 2015 New York family income of about $58,000, the Governor’s proposal would impact slightly over 80% of New York State families. From a political perspective, this makes total sense. Pragmatically, however, it is a different story. As some private colleges lose enrollments to SUNY, the actual cost of this program will be significantly higher than current estimates. And inequity is bound to result when a student from a $58,000 income family is treated the same as a student with a $125,000 income; and when low income students are eligible for less grant aid when funds are diverted from need-based aid to help fund the program.

Rather than eating Mom’s apple pie, legislators in New York need to look carefully at the recipe and figure out an equitable formula to make New York State colleges and universities more affordable.