College Recruiting: Blacks Squeezed Out

Poor college applicants struggle as strapped schools recruit those who can pay full freight.

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Digital Vision

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That funneling of precious college dollars into nonacademic amenities, a shrinking endowment and other factors had Dartmouth struggling to pare a $1 million deficit during Armstrong’s last year on the New Hampshire campus, where he had been director of alumni relations.

When a school is confronting a budget gap of that size, parity for a poor black kid can fall way down on the list of priorities, he said. That’s a stark departure from the outreach extended to black students such as Armstrong, a member of Dartmouth’s class of 1971, when he was an undergraduate.

“You saw a lot of [black collegians] back then who came out of the neighborhood, from the poorest of families, people who were the first in their generation to even go to college,” said Armstrong, who also spent six years as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s associate director of admissions. “Nowadays, the very definition of a ‘black student’ is somewhat different. You’re talking far more about black kids who come from the suburbs and kids who do not necessarily even come from America.”

Some Schools Seek Balance

Money helps create that difference, said Jerome Lucido, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Enrollment, Research, Policy and Practice. “We’re definitely seeing a bifurcation of our [college] population,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that some institutions aren’t trying to keep that from happening.”

The University of Maryland, for example, guarantees that no student from a family whose income is at the federal poverty line — $22,500 a year for a household of four — will graduate with education-related debt. Those students receive a mixture of federal education aid and devote no more than 16 hours weekly to an on-campus job.

And Rutgers is the only one of 61 members of the Association of American Universities — among the top public and private research-centered institutions — that sets aside 10 percent of its yearly open slots to low-income students. Its Future Scholars Program also ensures a certain level of ethnic and racial diversity, Associate Chancellor Morrison said.

But those are exceptions. As one gauge of where colleges are veering, the College Board reported that in 2005, $3.3 billion was spent on merit-based college scholarships and financial aid, and $2.5 billion on need-based support — even as demand for need-based aid spiked.

“Because of the pressures of competition and the desire to move up in the ranking,” Lucido said, “a lot of these dollars went to recruit students who [raise] a school’s prestige … Institutions, when they’re making these trade-offs, need to consider what their mission says, not just budgetary issues.”

And not just prestige, added Lucido, previously USC’s vice provost for enrollment policy and management. He has monitored the trends. He is familiar with the practices cited in the Inside Higher Ed survey. His overriding concern is that the spotlighting of what, on the surface, seems like bad news — colleges have always relied on full-pay students to help underwrite the costs of students who need help — will dissuade low-income students from applying to college at all.