HIGHER EDUCATION BUBBLE UPDATE: A “Poverty Preference” in College Admissions?

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, a philanthropic organization that awards scholarships to low-income, high-achieving high school students, is earning some well-deserved media attention for its comprehensive report on how and why colleges should attract more kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. . . .

The report draws attention to some very important defects in the way opportunities and benefits are distributed in this country. There really are structural barriers in place that prevent poor students from accessing elite education. And a “poverty preference” is a much more coherent way to level the playing field than affirmative action, at least as affirmative action is currently practiced by campus diversity bureaucracies.

At the same time, we worry that philanthropic efforts to expand opportunity for poor people often focus too narrowly on funneling them into elite colleges. To be sure, this is a worthwhile effort—we should be focused on making college admissions as fair as possible. But we should also be approaching a problem for the other end—that is, making an elite education matter less when it comes to determining a person’s life prospects.

As we’ve written before, the existing college-to-employment pipeline is deeply unfair. Many of the biggest employers, in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street, use university prestige as a proxy for intellectual ability, severely harming the prospects of students who either weren’t academically focused at age 17, or who, for personal or financial reasons, didn’t want to be a part of the elite education bubble. There are a number of ways to take on this problem, including creating a system of post-college national exams, or changing corporate recruitment policies, so that students from West Texas University and Chico State have a fair shot at competing with students from Princeton and Yale.