Harold Levy Op-Ed on How to Level the College Playing Field!

Dear Commons Community,

Harold Levy, former Chancellor of the New York City public Schools has been informed by his doctors that he is dying of A.L.S. In his remaining days, he has felt ”a great urgency” to speak boldly about a troubling fact: “Despite the best efforts of many, the gap between the numbers of rich and poor college graduates continues to grow.” In this op-ed, he lays out a series of recommendation with the assistance of journalist Peg Tyre, that “people of good conscience might take to make sure higher education is aligned with the democratic values we share.” As described in the op-ed.

“Let’s start with alumni. It is common to harbor fond feelings toward your alma mater. But to be a responsible, forward-looking member of your college’s extended community, look a little deeper. Make it your business to figure out exactly who your college serves. What is the economic breakdown of the current student body? Some colleges trumpet data about underrepresented minorities and first-generation students. But many don’t. And either way, there are follow-up questions to ask. How has that mix changed over the past 10 years? What policies are in place to increase those numbers? You may not get a direct answer. No matter. When they call you as part of the annual fund-raising drive, press the issue.

But you need to go further. Legacy admission must end. By some counts, children of alumni, almost all of them from the top economic quartile, account for 10 percent to 25 percent of the students at the top 100 universities. In 2011, an analysis of 30 elite schools found that legacy candidates saw a 23 percentage point increase in their chances of getting in compared with otherwise similar candidates. Among the Harvard class of 2021, 29 percent had a parent, grandparent or close family relation who attended the school.

Colleges say they need legacy admissions to encourage donations. But a 2010 study by Chad Coffman, Tara O’Neil and Brian Starr looked at alumni donations at the top 100 universities and found no discernible impact of legacy admission on giving. Leading universities, including M.I.T., Caltech and Berkeley, don’t allot extra credit to legacies. We need to press all schools to do the same. Your child is likely to have a great life even if he or she never sleeps in the same freshman dorm you did.

Next, let’s shorten the college tour. College admissions officers, who opted for the Common Application to make multiple applications to college easier, subsequently tried to weed out the not-so-serious applicants by making a pre-application college visit and a tour weigh in favor of an applicant. They call it “demonstrated interest,” but what it mainly signifies is a family’s ability to pay for a trip and not much more. The college tours, which for wealthy families gobble up vacation time for most of their child’s junior year in high school, are another way to signify the means, not the seriousness, of a candidate. Princeton and Emory, to name two, do not factor demonstrated interest into their admissions decisions. The rest should follow.

Broadly speaking, more people are going to college. To help students who come from the middle and working classes, cities and states should adopt models like the City University of New York’s ASAP program, which provides intensive advising, money for textbooks and even MetroCards to smooth a student’s pathway to his or her degree.

More name-brand colleges could do what Bard College has done: Refine the first two years of their four-year liberal arts education into an accredited Bard associate degree. They work with local partners to offer the degree in “microcolleges” within libraries and community centers. Their first four students — all low-income women with children who never considered applying to elite schools — are graduating from the pilot microcollege, in poverty-stricken Holyoke, Mass., this spring. One has been admitted as a transfer student to both Smith and Mount Holyoke, an almost unimaginable leap. The others are waiting to hear whether they will get to transfer to other selective colleges in the region with enough financial aid and child care to make it a reality.

And please, let’s not act like everyone already has the road map to college plotted. The college application system has become costly and baroque. Middle- and working-class kids rely on high school guidance counselors to help them navigate college admission and financial aid. But according to the latest figures, the average national ratio of high school students to counselors runs as high as 482 to 1. We must make it possible for high schools to hire, train and deploy enough guidance counselors, or we will have proved that we are not taking this issue seriously.
And of course, money talks. The 529 savings programs reward wealthy people for saving for, among other things, colleges, many of which disproportionally favor … wealthy people. President Barack Obama was shot down for trying to do away with it. And the new tax code allows parents to use those funds to pay for private and parochial elementary and secondary school as well. If you are saving money in a 529 to pay for college and live in a state that gives you a tax deduction for it, you might consider making a donation to a college access program for low-income kids. It’s a small gesture, but it can make a big difference to a child in your community and beyond.

This may seem counterintuitive, but please stop giving to your alma mater. Donors to top universities are getting hefty tax deductions to support a system that can seem calculated to ensure that the rich get richer. If you feel you must give, try earmarking your donation for financial aid for low-income, community college students who have applied to transfer to your alma mater.

While visionary leaders are pushing their college and universities to increase the numbers of first-generation college students, comprehensive reforms must come quickly and they must be more visible. Campuses that are overwhelmingly populated by wealthy students amplify the voices that jeer at our higher education system and energize those who seek to destroy it. It would be a tragedy if they succeeded.”

Thank you Mr. Levy and Ms. Tyre!


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