Private Colleges Discriminate Against Poor Kids

By Robert VerBruggen

Today's Policy slate features an Atlantic writeup of the new report finding that George Washington University, despite professing to be "need-blind," actually is less likely to admit students who are poor. The university now says it's "need-aware." (I think they mean this as a watering down of "need-blind" -- we're aware of your need and we'd like to help, though we can't guarantee it -- but to me it sounds more like its polar opposite.)

I'm glad people are finally talking about this practice, and I'm glad GWU has been forced to stop saying inaccurate things about its admissions policies. But this is actually old news, and it's not limited to GWU.

In their 2009 book No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal, the sociologists Thomas J. Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford statistically analyzed admissions at numerous top-tier universities, seeking to figure out which factors are most important. One finding about private schools: While poor black students receive more of a preference than rich black students, the opposite is true for whites. Schools appear to discriminate rather significantly against whites of modest means.

This isn't just some obscure number lurking in a table somewhere, either; it entered the public discussion when Minding the Campus published a whole article about it, inspiring a rash of not-always-accurate media coverage. For reasons of ego I'm obligated to note that my own review of the book, published more than six months earlier, had also noted the finding.

Certainly, there's no law saying that private institutions need to provide goods and services without considering whether the customer can pay. If that were the case I'd drive a Murcielago. But if colleges are going to present themselves as "need-blind" opportunity equalizers, they should live up to that standard, and by and large they do not.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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