Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Uncommon App

I'm sorry to revisit an old, and extremely tiresome, debate. If you didn't go to Chicago, feel free to tune out. But this is exactly right:
For the past few years, elite colleges and universities have ... unveiled some very generous “grand prizes” in the form of making college free for low-income students,eliminating loans for others, or capping payments for improperly defined “middle income” individuals. But while this makes for a big payoff, the school doesn’t have to worry too much—they can keep costs down by controlling who they let in and the extent to which they sell these policies to lower-income students.

To an elite institution, these policies are a win-win calculation: good press for seeming generous, but it doesn’t have to worry about going too far in letting in these more expensive low-income students because it doesn’t take a proactive approach to recruiting them and convincing them to apply

if institutions are truly committed to improving their socioeconomic diversity, then they need to do more just announce a new policy with a flashy press release. Instead, admissions officers should do a better job visiting lower-income high schools, forming relationships with guidance counselors where they can, and generally take a more proactive approach to identifying promising lower-income students. Admittedly, this is labor intensive and has some costs, but without a greater commitment, these generous financial aid policies will be little more than a flashy exercise with little risk of significant success.
Many people point out that income mobility is pretty bad right now. The argument, which one gets by innuendo, is that Republicans have raided the economy and are keeping all of the jobs for themselves. There may be some truth to this. But overwhelmingly, the path to a better life is through education; and schools are not following through.

The UofC in particular is pretty damnable. On the plus side, it doesn't really do legacies, and has historically done well by taking in smart kids who are discriminated against elsewhere (Jews in the 50s, Asians today. This analogy actually goes pretty far. Schools started looking at evaluations and so forth because otherwise they would have to admit Jews who scored high on the SATs, and they use essays today in a similar way for Asians.). On the down side, 13% of Chicago students have Pell Grants, a reasonable indicator of low family income. This beats Harvard, but trails a number of other schools--like MIT and Amherst--and falls way behind the California system, which have over the past half century dramatically expanded to offer a great education to many deserving kids.

It's bad enough that elite Universities like Chicago have chosen, instead of opening up like UC Berkeley, to hunker down and amass enormous endowments which they display mostly for prestige (or else blow it all on gyms and fancy science buildings). What's worse is that people complain when someone actually tries to do something about it.

That's what the Uncommon App debate was about. The rich and connected kids already know about Chicago and can get their maids to fill out ten forms duplicating their home address. It's promising low-income students--who are put off enough by the high sticker price--who you get by making it easier to apply. No, putting the application in a slightly less hokey and pretentious package will not destroy the brand.

Ultimately, this is not a big issue, and I'm almost sure I'm the only person still thinking about it. But what's at stake is the character of the school and how accessible you are. One side wants to let in the elect, while keeping out the lazy rif-raf, and then withdrawing behind those walls to rise in oaths of brotherhood to those they kept outside. And I think this about concludes the series of screechy op-eds I never sent in to the Maroon.


Jeffrey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeffrey said...

I wanted to post here because it wasn't letting me on g-reader. I totally see your point about seeking out low-income but talented students. I was just wondering what you thought the mechanism is by which the uncommon app discriminates against low-income but talented students, or if there are any possible adjustments that would eliminate the problem while maintaining some sort of uniqueness.

Thorfinn said...

It's costly (in time) to fill out ten separate forms to ten different colleges. The Common App was designed to make it easier for low-income kids to apply to many schools, including competitive ones they might not apply to otherwise.

You can eliminate this problem by giving people the choice of filing through the Common App--so they don't have to duplicate their phone number, address, and all of that--and requiring supplemental essays. AFAIK, this is what happens know.