In 1955, Williams College Admissions Director Fred Copeland was bothered by a new trend: “This year, Yale, and, to some extent Harvard, gave early verbal and written guarantees to many top candidates. It seems to me that the practice is going to become more prevalent and that ‘early acceptances’ will become the rule rather than the exception; the problem will be not to let it go too far.”
Now Harvard University, Princeton University and the University of Virginia have concluded things have gone too far. In past weeks, these schools eliminated their early admissions programs, citing the goal of leveling the playing field for low-income students.
The field needs leveling. A recent study showed that at elite U.S. colleges, there are 25 times more students from the upper class as from the working class. While some believe eliminating early admissions will increase the number of low-income students at selective schools, no one believes it is a silver bullet solution to equalizing access. So what more can schools like Yale do?
First, they can have a real discussion that goes beyond: “Are you for or against early admissions?” Last year, the Yale College Council proposed holding a national conference to discuss broader solutions to increasing access to selective colleges. The conference, called “A Seat at the Table,” is sponsored by the Roosevelt Institution and hosted by Yale. Here’s a quick glimpse of who will be in attendance: Princeton’s former president William Bowen, University President Richard Levin, Amherst President Anthony Marx, the Deans of Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard, Yale and a number of other selective colleges, as well as scholars, policy makers and more than 100 students from around the country.
Second, these schools can improve their financial aid packages. Yale has already taken a great first step here. In the last two years, the YCC drafted proposals urging the University to forgive the family contribution for low-income students and to overhaul the travel allowance portion of financial aid. Yale has adopted both policies.
Third, universities must acknowledge that while adequate financial aid is necessary to increase access, it is not enough by itself. Outreach to low-income students will make the real difference. A landmark study on admissions rates at elite schools found that “once accepted, students from low socioeconomic groups enroll at disproportionately high rates.” In fact, low-income students are more likely to enroll than students from any other income level.
In other words, the real struggle is not over the financial aid package once a student has been admitted; it’s getting the student to apply in the first place. A recent study showed that every year, are more than 10,000 low-income high school seniors who have the test scores to get into competitive private and public colleges do not to apply to these schools. It’s time to explore better ways to reach them.
The YCC formed a unique partnership with the Admissions Office to administer the Student Ambassadors outreach program. In its initial year, the program sent 130 Yale students to more than 200 high schools in low-income neighborhoods in 35 states. The result was a 10 percent jump in applications from low-income students. Any university serious about making higher education more accessible to low-income students must focus on outreach to these students.
A history lesson about the virtues of increased outreach is instructive. A decade after Copeland wrote his prescient note, Yale decided to eliminate its early admissions program because it favored the privileged. It did this in a climate strikingly similar to today’s. Princeton dropped early admissions in the same year, and Harvard was in the process of scaling back its early program.
But Yale did away with early admissions only for a year. It came back in a new form: as the National Scholars program. Reflecting a new desire to diversify the student body, the National Scholars program targeted the most promising students in the United States, no matter where they came from. To implement the program, Yale hired a slew of staffers to travel the country and encourage top students to apply early in the fall.
The result? That fall, Yale welcomed a very different class to New Haven. It was drawn from the widest variety of backgrounds in the history of the school. And, when everything was added up, the new kids also happened to have the highest SAT scores in the history of the Ivy League.
Zach Marks is a sophomore in Saybrook College. He is the co-director of “A Seat at the Table” and secretary of the YCC. Steven Syverud ’06 is the former president of the YCC.