Michael Bloomberg made an important announcement Nov. 18. No, he is not running for president (at least not yet), but he is doing his part to remake the American economy. He is giving John’s Hopkins $1.8 billion to make the university’s admissions totally need-blind, ensuring the university can offer admission and financial aid to anyone who deserves a spot.
Cost, Bloomberg argues, is what’s keeping talented students from low-income families out of college. But, in truth, cost is only one small part of the problem. The bigger obstacles are getting low income students to apply to schools like John’s Hopkins in the first place, and having the tools to graduate when they get there.
In fact, most elite universities—those in the Ivy League and their peers—already offer need-blind admissions. But they still have few students from low income households. Children with parents in the top 1% for income are 77 times more likely to attend an elite college than children with parents in the bottom 20%. Some economists suspect children from low-income students don’t apply to elite schools because they lack the confidence and information to know that they could be accepted and get financial aid if they apply.
Even when low-income students do make it to college, many drop out. In a 2002 study of 10th graders who anticipated going to college, only 25% of low-income students ended up graduating from college. And this actually doesn’t have much to do with money.
Several years ago, economists and brothers Todd and Ralph Stinebrickner wrote a series of research papers published by the National Bureau of Economic Research about Berea College in Kentucky, a school dedicated to providing free education to students from low-income families. Students don’t pay for tuition or accommodations, and they have access to loans if they need more money for any other expenses. And yet, the Stinebrickner brothers estimated that 50% of matriculated students drop out, higher than the drop-out rate of high-income students at other colleges.
One big reason, they concluded, is that lower–income students tend to doubt their abilities after a semester of bad grades. Many students struggle their first semester in college, especially if they did not go to a high school that prepared them for the rigors of a college curriculum, which is more common among students from low-income backgrounds. Parents who have been to college themselves are able to encourage and expect their kids to persevere. First-generation college students, however, often have to bear that emotional burden themselves. They are more likely to feel discouraged and drop out if they don’t have a good first semester.
Education does have the potential to make the US more meritocratic. But simply sending low-income students to college, even when it is tuition-free, is not enough. Low-income students need more support when they arrive so they can power through setbacks and get academic help when they need it.
There have been a few programs that have had some success at helping low income students. The ASAP program at CUNY, New York City’s university system, requires students in associate degree programs study full-time—so they’re not distracted by part-time jobs—and offers them free tuition, fees, books, and money for transportation. Most important, students receive intensive counseling to help keep them on track and anticipate their pitfalls. It’s working well. Nationally, only 34% of students who go to community college graduate in six years, and only 14% eventually enroll in a bachelor’s degree program. But at CUNY, more than 60% of ASAP students completed an associate degree and about 25% eventually earn a bachelor’s degree.
ASAP’s success and the dropout rates at Berea suggest that simply offering tuition to low-income students is neither necessary or sufficient to help them graduate, though it can be helpful. Even low-income students with high test scores struggle to graduate. Bloomberg’s money might be better spent on programs that help students thrive.