In April 2013, I decided to attend UC Berkeley. Accompanying me were 16 other students from my graduating high school class of about 350. Even more than that were accepted — which is to say that admissions to a University of California institution was not considered a particularly remarkable feat.
This ought to be weighed against the fact that the average household income in my town is nearly $155,000, our zip code is one of most expensive in America and 95 percent of students graduating from my high school annually matriculate to some type of college following graduation. According to a report from the University of Pennsylvania’s Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy and the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, in 2013, nearly 80 percent of adults from households in the top income quartile had earned at least bachelor’s degrees by age 24. Conversely, less than 10 percent of those in the lowest income bracket could cite the same achievement.
This information is jarring, surely; but even more so when the divide between rich and poor students’ education attainment is evident directly in our school’s backyard at Berkeley High School.
Berkeley High School is divided between five different learning communities — three small schools of between 230 and 300 students and two larger programs of between 900 and 1,300. Students are divided according to some loose combination of their ranked preference and zip code so each Berkeley zip code is equally represented in each of the learning communities. Though this distribution seeks to individualize students’ education to support their diverse needs, Berkeley zip codes are neither racially nor socioeconomically uniform. As a result, de facto segregation persists between the learning communities at Berkeley High School.
In January, researchers from Harvard Educational School released a report, “Turning the Tide,” that compelled colleges not to prioritize standardized test scores and accumulated Advanced Placement courses. The hope, ostensibly, was that a more holistic review might dissociate varied high school resources from students’ college-competitiveness. UC Berkeley, specifically, has signalled one step toward fulfilling this goal: According to UC Berkeley’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions, all students “seeking 2016-17 admission to the freshman class also will be able to submit two letters of recommendation.” Given Berkeley High School’s deemphasis on AP, IB and Honors classes for students enrolled in the smaller learning communities, such a proposal might abet the high school’s overarching objective to matriculate all students into universities.
Surely this could work to mitigate socioeconomic divides among students. But accepting more students who lack the independent resources to be successful — or who are less likely to have the buttressing of intergenerational wealth — ultimately burdens institutions to fill those gaps. Too often, however, they don’t.
In order to truly diversify universities, administrators and policymakers ought not focus solely around a college’s admissions process. Rather, they should emphasize how universities can accommodate different students of sundry sociopolitical backgrounds without imposing cumbersome financial burdens on either those students or themselves. Although educational and financial objectives of colleges are often contradictory, this could be remedied with more deliberate admissions decisions that account for talented low- and middle-income students. The University of California system has already taken steps to provide quality education to the economically diverse masses — and ensure those students graduate, too.
I hope colleges will consider the sentiment behind “Turning the Tide” and that doing so will mitigate some inherent biases in admissions data. But if admissions departments truly seek more success stories — more college degrees from students with different backgrounds — then they need to attend more to the realities of supporting students who lack independent resources for four years of schooling.
The answer is not so simple as modifying the admissions process. College is, however, relationally path dependent. That is to say, one is statistically less likely to attend — and succeed in — college if his or her parents are not university graduates. In one BHS learning community, nearly two-thirds of students’ parents are college graduates; in another, that statistic drops to 35 percent. Still, in 2014, 96 percent of the latter’s student body reportedly matriculated into some college program following their graduation. Nationally, only 11 percent of low-income students who are the first in their family to attend college will have a college degree within six years of enrolling in school.
Higher education is undeniably important for intergenerational mobility. People born in the bottom income quintile have a 45 percent chance of remaining there as adults sans a college degree. With a degree, however, that percentage nearly halves. Recent reforms have led some pundits to laud traditionally choosy colleges for turning toward more progressive, more student-conscious policies. Yet others say competitive universities need to quit obsessing over rankings or stop matriculating students on the basis of legacy or athletic talent, in order to successfully diversify their student bodies. Though having a more holistic admissions process is part of a very multifaceted jigsaw, it’s not the exhaustive answer.
When administrators ruminate about reforming the college admissions process, they often fail to consider that these conversations aren’t sequestered to the four years directly preceding one’s higher education. They need to consider the socioeconomic conditions that formatively shaped a student’s odyssey through the American education system. Of course, this is nearly impossible to accomplish through essays and test scores alone and, of course, an application is only ever one snapshot of a larger story. Nonetheless, conversations about the college admissions process ought to consider how to best account for greater socioeconomic diversity in order to make colleges more stimulating places to learn and better apparatuses for social mobility.