Why poor kids don’t try for top colleges


Genesis Morales works on the computer at Bryan Adams High School in Dallas. Photo: Cooper Neill, Texas Tribune

“One Dallas-area high school sent more than 60 students to University of Texas-Austin last year,” report Neena Satija and Matthew Watkins in the Texas Tribune. A few miles away, a high-poverty, high-minority school sent one.

Students who rank in the top 10 percent of their senior class are guaranteed a spot in any state university. (At UT-Austin, a student usually needs to be in the top 7 percent.)

Yet, across the state, many low-income, first-generation students don’t apply to top colleges, write Satija and Watkins. Some fear they don’t belong at elite schools like UT-Austin.

Genesis Morales, a senior who ranks 8th in her class at Bryan Adams High, qualifies for automatic admission to UT-Austin, but didn’t apply.

. . . her parents, who are from Mexico, didn’t graduate high school. Her dad is a landscaper, and her mom is a factory worker. For years, her only impressions of college came from watching television shows.

“It’s people who have money, people who are, like, prodigies and stuff, [who] end up there. For me, I was never surrounded by those people — people who went to college.”

Persuaded to aim higher than community college, Morales set her sights on going to Texas Woman’s University in Denton. She prefers a lower-ranked school. “I feel I’m not going to be as smart. So when it comes to tough schools, I kind of stay away,” she said.

Many top-ranked students at Bryan Adams are applying to UT’s less-selective campuses in the Dallas area, reports the Tribune.

. . . most low-income students of color prefer to stay close to home, said Jane Lincove, an assistant professor at Tulane University who studies college access.

In addition to that, at the branch campuses, “there’s more students who look like them, and there’s more students who went to their high schools,” Lincove said of minority students.

Despite her high grades, Morales’ SAT score is in the 43rd percentile, which is low for UT-Austin students. She believes she’d have trouble completing a degree.

“At the state’s two flagships, UT-Austin and Texas A&M University, 72 percent of Hispanic students graduate within six years, compared with 49 percent at Texas Woman’s,” write Satija and Watkins. Of course, that ignores the apple-orange issue: The flagship schools enroll academically superior Hispanic students compared to Texas Woman’s.

Some believe affirmative action can hurt minority students by getting them into top colleges, where they’ll struggle academically, instead of less-elite colleges, where they’ll be as prepared as their classmates. Mikhail Zinshteyn looks at the debate on “mismatch theory.”

Without Scalia, will union dues survive?

Justice Antonin Scalia’s death could be “a big break for teachers’ unions, which were set to lose the Friedrich’s case over mandatory union dues, writes Andrew Rotherham on Eduwonk.

Justice Antonin Scalia's death could give teachers' unions a victory -- however temporary -- in the Friedrichs case.

Justice Antonin Scalia’s death could give teachers’ unions a victory — however temporary — in the Friedrichs case.

The smart money said the unions were going to lose a 5-4 vote. If that’s true, the vote is now 4-4. That means the lower-court’s pro-union ruling stands as if the Supreme Court had never heard the case, writes Tom Goldstein on ScotusBlog. A tie doesn’t set a precedent.

The union victory could be temporary, notes the Los Angeles Times. The Court could “ask for re-argument of the same case next term,” after a ninth justice is seated.

The Court was on track to limit affirmative action in public higher education in the Fisher case, writes Goldstein. “Because Justice Kagan recused herself, it’s likely the University of Texas will lose on a 4-3 vote.

College admissions: Why not a lottery?

Affirmative action is back in court — the U.S. Supreme Court — in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.

Abigail Fisher is challenging racial preferences in admission to University of Texas at Austin.

Abigail Fisher is challenging racial preferences in admission to University of Texas at Austin.

Abigail Fisher, a white student rejected in 2008, claims her dream school used “holistic review” as a cover for racial discrimination. “There were people in my class with lower grades who weren’t in all the activities I was in, and who were being accepted into UT, and the only other difference between us was the color of our skin,” Fisher said.

“Affirmative-action policies at selective colleges are very vulnerable,” writes Richard Kahlenberg in The Atlantic. Race is weighed “very heavily” in admissions decisions. That helps “fairly well-off African-American and Latino students.”

“By the 1990s, one study found that 86 percent of African American students on selective campuses were middle or upper class, and the white students were even richer,” he writes.

“Underrepresented minority students receive a 28-percentage-point increase in their chances of being admitted, according to one careful analysis,” he writes. ” Low-income students receive no boost whatsoever.”

University of Texas at Austin uses race as a factor in admission for up to 10 percent of students.

University of Texas at Austin admits the top 10 percent of students at each high school to ensure diversity; about 7 percent are admitted through “holistic review.”

Affirmative action based on economic disadvantage — help for low-income students of all races — could reproduce current levels of racial diversity at 193 selective colleges, a 2014 simulation concluded. “Socioeconomic diversity would rise substantially,” writes Kahlenberg.

Samuel Goldman, a poli sci prof at George Washington University, proposes a lottery open to all qualified applicants to replace the opaque, dishonest and expensive college admissions system.

The application would involve a checklist of more or less objective, externally verifiable criteria. These might include GPA above a certain cutoff, scores of 4 of 5 on a given number of AP tests, and so on. . . . there might be a box to be checked by applicants who played a varsity sport.  The application could even ask about socio-economic status, allowing applicants to indicate that their parents had not attended college or that they grew up in a high-poverty census tract.

Suppose the checklist contained ten criteria. Applicants who satisfied, say, six of them would be entered into a lottery for admission.

“Elite universities might lose a bit of their cachet,” he writes in The American Conservative. He’s OK with that.

A college-admissions lottery would reduce stress, writes Barry Schwartz, a Swarthmore psychology professor.

Every selective school should establish criteria that students would have to meet to have a high likelihood of being successful. Then, the names of all applicants who meet these criteria would be put into a hat and the winners would be drawn at random.

Students wouldn’t have to be “best,” he writes. “Good enough” would be good enough.

Asian students face diversity penalty

Playing piano or violin -- like the daughters of "tiger mother" Amy Chua -- fits the Asian stereotype, but hurts in college admissions, say counselors.

Playing piano or violin — like the daughters of “tiger mother” Amy Chua — looks “too Asian” on college applications, say counselors.

Asian-Americans have “turned against affirmative action policies” that make it harder for them to get into elite colleges, reports Frank Shyong in the Los Angeles Times. “In the San Gabriel Valley’s hyper-competitive ethnic Asian communities, arguments for diversity can sometimes fall on deaf ears.”

In a tutoring center’s workshop on college admissions in the valley, Ann Lee tells Asian-American parents about a Princeton study on how race and ethnicity affect admissions. Being black is worth 230 SAT points, according to the study. Hispanics receive a “bonus” of 185 points. Asian applicants are penalized by 50 points, says Lee. “Do Asians need higher test scores? Is it harder for Asians to get into college? The answer is yes,” Lee says.

For immigrant parents raised in Asia’s all-or-nothing test cultures, a good education is not just a measure of success — it’s a matter of survival. They see academic achievement as a moral virtue, and families organize their lives around their child’s education, moving to the best school districts and paying for tutoring and tennis lessons. An acceptance letter from a prestigious college is often the only acceptable return on an investment that stretches over decades.

Private college-prep academies counsel Asian-Americans on how to stand out. “Everyone is in orchestra and plays piano,” says Lee, founder of HS2 Academy. “Everyone plays tennis. Everyone wants to be a doctor, and write about immigrating to America. You can’t get in with these cliche applications.”

Crystal Zell, HS2’s assistant director of counseling, urges students to volunteer in poor neighborhoods and find activity other than tennis, taekwondo or chess.

“One parent asked Zell whether it would help to legally change the family name to something more Western-sounding,” reports the Times.

Some Asian-American students have filed lawsuits against colleges that rejected them, but admitted blacks and Latinos with lower grades and test scores.

Rejected Asians sue Harvard for bias

Asian-American students are suing Harvard, charging they were rejected because of affirmative action policies that discriminate against Asians.

According to a 2009 Princeton study, the average Asian American applicant needed a 1460 SAT score to be admitted, a white student with similar GPA and other qualifications needed a score of 1320, while blacks needed  1010 and Hispanics 1190.

Project on Fair Representation, which filed the suit,  also has filed suit against University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for discriminating against both whites and Asians.

“The College considers each applicant through an individualized, holistic review having the goal of creating a vibrant academic community that exposes students to a wide-range of differences: background, ideas, experiences, talents and aspirations,” wrote Robert Iuliano, Harvard’s general counsel in a statement.

“Asian-American students benefit greatly from attending the racially and socio-economically diverse campuses that affirmative action helps create,” said Julie Park, assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland and author of When Diversity Drops.

It reminds me of the quotas against Jews back in the day. Ivy League schools feared they’d end up with too many Jewish students if they admitted based on academic qualifications.

Is it legal? asks Slate? “In remanding the case of Fisher v. University of Texas to a lower court in 2013, SCOTUS held that schools have a responsibility to attempt race-neutral means of achieving diversity (giving a leg up to low-income applicants, say) before turning to race-conscious means, and it’s not clear whether the Court would agree that Harvard and UNC have met that test.”

Why did Kyle get rejected?

When his family was homeless, Kyle studied in the school library and earned straight A’s. He competed in cross country, despite his epilepsy. As a National Honor Society member, he volunteered in the community. His “excellent grades” were backed by high test scores. Why did so many colleges reject Kyle?, asks Michele Kerr on Hypersensitive.

All the Ivy League schools said no, except Brown. Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and UC San Diego rejected him. In addition to Brown, he was accepted at UCLA, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and UC Santa Barbara.

Kyle will go to Brown on a full scholarship. But Kerr is “shocked and more than a little angry that so many top-ranked schools rejected him.”

You’re thinking I’m overly optimistic, aren’t you? How to put this delicately: a kid can’t just be homeless and poor with high scores and good grades. He needs to be a great athlete in a desired sport, or a fantastic musician. On pure academics, “poor” doesn’t cut it unless the kid is black or Hispanic.

But Kyle is black.

Elite schools say they’re eager to admit disadvantaged minority students who are academically prepared. Kerr wonders if they’re saving their “black” admissions for athletes in major sports, the children of black alumni or students from networked, media-savvy charter schools.

Kyle is “a great kid – funny, quirky, chatty, upbeat,” she writes. “His success is due most of all to his development of great natural abilities and his determination in the face of considerable adversity — and no doubt, his positively chirpy good-spirited view of life.”

Court upholds ban on racial preferences

States can ban racial preferences in university admissions ruled the U.S. Supreme Court today on a 6-2 vote. The case involves a Michigan initiative passed by voters.

“This case is not about how the debate (over racial preferences) should be resolved,” Justice Anthony Kennedy said in announcing the ruling. But to stop Michigan voters from making their own decision on affirmative action would be “an unprecedented restriction on a fundamental right held by all in common.”

Seven other states – California, Florida, Washington, Arizona, Nebraska, Oklahoma and New Hampshire – have similar bans, notes USA Today.

When the University of Texas’ affirmative action plan was thrown out in court, the state came up with a race-neutral alternative. The Texas Ten Percent Plan (TTP) guarantees admission to state universities — including University of Texas in Austin and Texas A&M — to the top students in each high school class. Florida and California adopted similar guarantees.

The Ten Percent Plan encourages top students to enroll in state universities, but doesn’t increase university attendance, according to a study in Education Next.  “The program appears to have simply shifted students from selective private or out-of-state colleges to the two flagship universities. That may have lowered educational costs for eligible students, but it did not enhance the quality of their higher education opportunities.”

Asians fight return of college preferences

“A legislative push to permit California’s public universities to once again consider race and ethnicity in admissions appears to be on life support after an intense backlash from Asian-American parents,” reports the San Jose Mercury News.  Because many Asian-Americans earn high grades and test scores, they’re “over-represented” at University of California campuses.

A planned referendum sailed through the state Senate in January without fanfare on a party-line vote, but three Asian-American Democrats who initially backed the measure are now calling for it to be “tabled” before the state Assembly has a chance to vote on it — a highly unusual move. And it seems unlikely to get the two-thirds majority in the Assembly without the support of the five Asian-Americans in the lower house.

UC reaches out to students from low-income, non-college-educated families. That helps Latinos, blacks — and students from Chinese and Vietnamese immigrant families.

Poor high school’s impact lasts

Top students at low-performing high schools earn low grades in collegeconcludes a new study. The University of Texas at Austin guarantees admission to the top 10 percent of students at every high school in the state as an alternative to race-based affirmative action.

. . .  the researchers did modeling on the performance of a female Hispanic student who enrolled at UT at the age of 18, has a mother with a high school diploma, and family income between $20,000 and $40,000. Such a student, graduating from a high-performing high school, would be predicted to earn a 3.21 grade-point average at UT. Such a student from a low-performing high school would be predicted to earn a 2.30 at UT.

That’s a huge difference. And students don’t catch up in sophomore or junior year, the study found.

Starting this fall, UT will accept students in the top 7 percent of their high school class.

The University of California guarantees admission to students in the top 4 percent of their high school class, if they’ve passed the required college-prep courses with a C or better.

 

‘Holistic’ admissions at Berkeley

When California voters barred the use of racial or ethnic preferences in college admissions, the University of California vowed to use a “holistic” process that considers socioeconomic disadvantages, leadership and motivation, as well as grades and test scores. As a reader of applications for Berkeley’s engineering department, Ruth Starkman saw the holistic process at work, she writes in the New York Times.

A highly qualified student, with a 3.95 unweighted grade point average and 2300 on the SAT, was not among the top-ranked engineering applicants to the University of California, Berkeley. He had perfect 800s on his subject tests in math and chemistry, a score of 5 on five Advanced Placement exams, musical talent and, in one of two personal statements, had written a loving tribute to his parents, who had emigrated from India.

The applicant was a 2 on a 1-to-5 scale (1 being highest) because he didn’t have enough extracurricular activities and engineering awards, she learned in training.

Now consider a second engineering applicant, a Mexican-American student with a moving, well-written essay but a 3.4 G.P.A. and SATs below 1800. His school offered no A.P. He competed in track when not at his after-school job, working the fields with his parents. His score? 2.5.

Readers were told to told to ignore minority background, but could consider whether a student came from a non-English-speaking household if it was a “stressor” that justified a special read looking for socioeconomic disadvantages.

To better understand stressors, I was trained to look for the “helpful” personal statement that elevates a candidate. Here I encountered through-the-looking-glass moments: an inspiring account of achievements may be less “helpful” than a report of the hardships that prevented the student from achieving better grades, test scores and honors.

Readers are supposed to look for “leadership,” a major criterion in the holistic process. That usually meant extracurricular activities. (Volunteer trips to exotic places were taken as a sign of  “privilege.”)

In my application pile, many students from immigrant households had excellent grades and test scores but few activities. I commented in my notes: “Good student, but not many interests or activities? Why? Busy working parents? And/or not able to afford, or get to, activities?”

Many essays “lucidly expressed a sense of self and character,” Starkman writes.  Others “betrayed the handiwork of pricey application packagers, whose cloying, pompous style was instantly detectable.”

She read innumerable hard-luck stories, not all of them credible. Kids figure out what sells.

Favoring “stressors” over academic success has costs:  92 percent of whites and Asians at Berkeley graduate within six years, compared with 81 percent of Hispanics and 71 percent of blacks. In the UC system, 17 percent of Hispanic and black students who express interest in the sciences graduate with a science degree within five years, compared with 31 percent of white students.

It’s ironic that colleges claim to be looking for  “leadership” potential, writes Walt K in the comments.

. . . their entire process is designed to select compliant followers: people who have bought into the whole game, and are happy to play along.

People who do well on tests. People who do well in class. People who follow instructions. People who join clubs. People who follow the conventional wisdom People who teachers like. People who do what they are told. People who do all the ‘right’ things.

. . .  leaders are the ones who say, ‘To heck with this, I’m picking myself.’ Which may often mean bailing out on college to actually DO something instead of sucking up.

I think Walt K has a point.

Many elite colleges enroll few low- and moderate-income students, reports the New York Times. Berkeley is much higher than the average, due affirmative action for disadvantaged students.