John Sutherland **pegs some research on access to American higher education to the release the Lifetime channel’s new movie, *Homeless to Harvard, *which based on the true story of one **Liz Murray:

Homeless to Harvard is parodically American; pure Horatio Alger.Even the title recalls Alger’s most famous tract, From Log Cabin to White House.

The millions watching Homeless to Harvard would have felt a warm Panglossian glow that all is well with the world of American education. Poverty is no barrier. It must be true; TV says so.

The truth, as revealed in cold statistics, is different.

A report released on April 6 (the day before Lifetime’s movie is premiered) revealed that the festering sore in American campuses is not the lack of “diversity” about which the supreme court is currently getting its judicial knickers twisted. The real problem in American higher education is that poor kids simply cannot get there, whatever their pigmentation or ethnic origin.

The figures are stark. Only 3% of freshmen at the 146 most selective colleges are from families in the bottom quarter of Americans, ranked by income. …</blockquote>

The central finding of the study, written by Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose for the Century Foundation (PDF, 1.6Mb), was that access to selective colleges is even more highly skewed socioeconomic status (SES) than it is by race and ethnicity. The study showed that 74 percent of students at highly selective colleges came from families in the top quarter of the SES scale while just 3 percent came from the poorest quarter of American families. The Century Foundation is suggesting “economic affirmative action” as a “Third Way” alternative to the race-based affirmative action programmes that are hugely controversial in the United States. This is a great idea, and it’s about time somebody proposed it.

Here in class-conscious Britain, thinking about social mobility in terms of socioeconomic status seems much more natural than it does in the United States. Indeed, class is the primary frame of the debates about improving access to higher education in this country. Nevertheless, the British government should read this report carefully while considering its own plans for higher education reform.

Much of New Labour’s thinking seems to be based on a false equation of American higher education with the Ivy League. This report provides some useful reminders about how unrepresentative these institutions are of American higher education. The American universities that the British government is so concerned about having to compete with are the “top tier” universities, which the report defines as:

Top Tier — “Most” and “Highly” competitive. Generally, students in this tier are in the top 35 percent of their high school class, have a high school GPA that is B or better, and score about 1240 on the SAT I or above 27 on the ACT. Colleges in this tier accept less than 50 percent of the applicants. There are 146 four-year colleges in this category and approximately 170,000 students enroll as freshmen at these institutions each year. Only a tiny percentage of the student population applies to the 46 most selective colleges —* only a few hundred thousand out of three million high school graduates* — and an even smaller group attends. Enrollments at the most selective 146 colleges represent less than 10 percent of the nation’s postsecondary freshman class, including four-year and two-year colleges.
(p. 8, emphasis mine)</p> Leaving aside the central point of the report — that access to these institutions is economically biased — it is important to note that they are not the totality of the American higher education system, a fact that seems to escape so many critics of British universities, who seem to think that all American schools have the lush campus of Stanford or an endowment fund that is a major institutional investor like Harvard’s. Why does this matter? Turn to page 11:

The economic benefits of attending a selective college are clear. Selective colleges spend as much as four times more per student and subsidize student spending by as much as $24,000, compared to a student subsidy of as little as $2,000 at the least selective colleges. Students at selective colleges have higher graduation rates than similarly qualified students at less selective colleges. In addition, the student support, preparation, and prestige at selective colleges result in higher rates of acceptance at graduate and professional schools among equally qualified high school students. While the differences in earnings for equally qualified students from “less” and “more” selective schools are small, they do appear to exist …</p> The Century Foundation study, which is based on the Department of Education’s National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, is not the first to have shown this. Another data source I’m aware of would have told them must the same thing. The <a “href=” >Cooperative Institutional Research Program</a>, a longitudinal survey of entering freshman designed to describe changing student demographics at the institutional level. This data isn’t publicly available as far as I know, but I from some reports I have seen, around 19 percent of freshmen at selective private colleges come from families with parental incomes above $200,000, which is the highest bracket they use.