Regular readers of our college admissions blog may remember when we wrote about one of Malcolm Gladwell’s more controversial podcasts in which he touted Vassar College’s commitment to educating as many students as possible on full financial aid and Pell Grants. The podcast wasn’t controversial because of Vassar’s commitment to educating low-income students — that’d be outrageous. It was controversial because he made the case (and some would argue that it’s a case built strictly on anecdotal evidence) that Bowdoin College invests its resources on fancy dining hall foods at the expense of educating low-income students, whereas Vassar serves subpar food to reserve its valuable resources for educating low-income students.
Interestingly, Catherine Bond Hill, a former president of Vassar College, that very school Gladwell touted for its commitment to educating low-income students, wrote an editorial recently in “The Washington Post” in which she espoused many of the same points we at Ivy Coach have been making for years that — many in the peanut gallery would argue — fly in the face of educating as many low-income students as possible. The peanut gallery, in this case, just isn’t right. Heavy-handed? Yes. Correct? No. As but one example, the peanut gallery believes Early Decision and Early Action policies make incoming classes at highly selective American universities less diverse and less inclusive. And our counterargument? Highly selective American universities need high-income students who pay full tuition in order to subsidize the tuition costs of low-income students. That’s one key reason why these colleges are competing for these high-income students — in an effort to educate low-income students.
Ivy Coach salutes Catherine Bond Hill, president emerita of Vassar College, for telling it like it is.
As another example, the peanut gallery believes legacy admission is unfair, outrageous, even antithetical to the spirit of our country. But, our dear peanut gallery, who is building the libraries in which low-income students study? Who is endowing the position of chair of the economics department? Who is building that world-class cancer research lab? So often it’s folks with deep connections to the university, folks who themselves attended the university. And so to admit the children, the legacies, of major donors in the hope of cultivating future donations seems only practical. Indeed the admission of legacies — while one could argue it’s a violation of tax law since one is not supposed to receive anything in return for making tax-deductible donations — contributes to the socio-economic diversity of the institution.
But let’s give the last word to Catherine Bond Hill, the president emerita of Vassar. As she writes in her piece entitled “There’s an easy way to change college admissions so the top schools don’t have as many wealthy students,” “Legacy admissions and early decision options are two key tools that schools use to attract these higher-income, talented students. One assumption is that if colleges eliminated these policies, they would recruit a more socioeconomically diverse student body. This would only be the case, however, if the effect of these policies on the economic diversity of the student body is an unintended consequence instead of being part of the justification for these policies. If colleges are forced to eliminate legacy admissions or early decision policies, it is not clear that more lower-income students would be admitted. Yet if schools want to admit greater numbers of lower-income students, they can do so now, even with legacy admissions preferences and early decision. Such moves require greater commitment of resources to financial aid, resources which then can’t be spent on competing for the appealing higher-income students.” Amen.