Metaphorical Mistakes in College Access Thinking

Crabby suggests better metaphors for thinking about college access…

In last Friday’s New York Times, Peter Dreier and Richard Kahlenberg wrote about “Making Top Colleges Less Aristocratic and More Meritocratic.”  They note that affluent students far outnumber economically disadvantaged students at highly selective college by 14 to 1. While “some colleges, such as Amherst and Harvard, have made progress in opening their doors to low-income students,” they also point out that most other post-secondary institutions have a much harder time doing so.

In making the argument that colleges, particularly highly-selective colleges, should open their doors more to the many (possibly up to 35,000, according to researcher Caroline Hoxby, et al.)  high-achieving, low-income students in the U.S., the authors ignore some basic realities of students’ progress to colleges and universities, which I believe can be explained by the persistence of a metaphor that limits our thinking about that progress.

Many organizations and supporters of college access talk about the “pipeline to college,” the “pipeline to college and career,” “tapping the talent pipeline,” or getting students into the “pipeline” that will help them succeed. (I once heard someone talk enthusiastically about “bridging the talent pipeline” but I’ll leave that one for now.) This image suggests that we are feeding raw material into a linear structure that directs that material toward some particular endpoint; a refinery comes to mind. In this construct, students are the raw material and colleges are the “refineries” designed to handle the pipeline’s output. Although the authors of the Times article do not use the metaphor specifically, the suggestion that colleges simply increase their “intake” of low-income students to provide more college access indicates their dependence on the metaphor. Just open the spigot and more capable students will flow out.

But the pipeline metaphor actually restricts our ability to think about the issue we’re discussing, namely, getting more talented but underserved/overlooked students to appropriate post-secondary situations.

Dreier and Kahlenberg use the percentage of students with Pell grants, available to low-income students, as a way to measure the commitment of colleges to those students. They note that wealthy colleges such as Amherst (my alma mater and former employer as associate dean of admission) have increased the percentage of Pell recipients, but this is largely due to their epic endowments, which enables them to completely cover those students’ costs.

The question raised by Dreier and Kahlenberg comes to this: “[W]hat kind of public policies would encourage colleges to raise their commitment to equal opportunity.” But this question is based on the unstated idea that there are students in the “pipeline” and that colleges have simply to increase their capacity for taking them, the same way that an oil refinery can build more capacity to accommodate more oil.

They imply that colleges need to be encouraged to “raise their commitment to equal opportunity.” I am confident that most colleges already are committed to that goal; it’s their physical and financial capacity that is problematic. Recently I interviewed for an admission position at a well-respected liberal arts college. I emphasized my commitment to finding and enrolling underserved students, especially in the liberal arts fields. At the end of the day, however, the dean of admission told me they had done that recruiting so well they were overtaxing their budget and were worried about how to maintain their financial viability.

The “pipeline” solution is simply to open the valves so more low-income students can flow out to colleges and universities. But let’s make the metaphor literal: If an oil pipeline reaches overcapacity the solution is to increase the size of its valves  and the refineries it serves. But colleges are not refineries that can be expanded as needed. Most colleges and universities cannot afford simply to increase their capacities in order to accommodate more students, from whatever backgrounds. Even though the “pipeline” has many more students in it now, actual end-capacity hasn’t changed significantly in terms of the number of places at those highly-selective colleges the authors use as their examples. (It took 40 years for Amherst to grow from a student body of 1,200 to nearly 1,800 today.)

To suggest that colleges should simply accept more low-income students implies that institutions can simply expand the way an oil refinery does. But colleges are not refineries and cannot simply expand to accommodate more raw material, i.e., “students.” And therefore, they cannot accept more of one kind of student without accepting fewer of others.

The makeup of a college demands that there be a complex and balanced mixture of students from various backgrounds, all of whom, technically, should be able to do the work the college demands, and at least some of whom can pay the bills in full. Whether we like it or not, colleges depend on the legacy/development/full-pay/athlete/special talent/Pell Grant formula to create not only a good community but also a financially stable environment. The demands of many constituents preclude simply opening up the pipeline valves to increase the flow of incoming raw material.

“Pipeline” thinking demands, however, that they do just that. In theory, Amherst could develop its bird sanctuary, build more dorms and double its size to accommodate more smart students from all backgrounds, but that would also mean fundamentally changing the essence of the institution, including building more classrooms, hiring more professors, losing its sense of individualized learning, and so on. Or, staying the same size, it could alter the mix in other ways.

Suggesting, as Dreier and Kahlenberg do, that colleges should be “held to a minimum level of effort to enroll and graduate low-income and working class students eligible for Pell grants” indicates they think that refining capacity can be increased if the pipeline is opened more. But, again, college are not refineries; if more Pell students are enrolled (a good thing in itself), other students will have to be rejected. It’s a zero-sum game assuming that a college’s capacity can’t change. If a college of modest endowment and no capacity for expansion commits to enrolling 45% of students on Pell grants instead of its previous 15%, what 30% of the rest of its applicants will it cut out? (Pell grants, incidentally, are woefully inadequate as a percentage of college costs; they are simply used as proxies to indicate low-income students.)

The college business model continually requires delicately balancing important commitments each year at admission time. I believe that most colleges and universities sincerely desire to enroll capable students whatever their backgrounds. The major point here is that the “pipeline” metaphor reduces the problem to simply opening the valves more to increase the flow to those institutions.

To address the problem, Dreier and Kahlenberg suggest that

“policy makers could…encourage tax-exempt foundations to give priority to investing in universities and colleges that demonstrate a commitment to educating low-income students. And private benefactors–who typically bestow their individual and family contributions to their alma maters–could be encouraged to give to colleges that walk the walk when it comes to economic diversity”

But this only supports the “pipeline” effect: What institutions are already “walking the walk?” You guessed it: the Amhersts and Harvards of the post-secondary world. Unless that “investment” includes greatly expanding the capacities of colleges currently unable to accept the increased flow of talent in the pipeline, there’s still nowhere to put that excess. We could build more colleges, but since small colleges fail at rates approaching those of new restaurants, that would seem to be a dead end.

As long as we think in linear terms about how students gain access to college and how colleges accept them, we will be frustrated in our efforts to provide a good education to everyone who wants one. Our focus should be on expanding the capacity of every college, not just the so-called “highly-selective” colleges, to accept and educate students from all backgrounds. (Incidentally, terms like “highly-selective” in the college world are incredibly elastic, since they are primarily determined by the colleges themselves–there is no industry standard for the term. Some institutions that accept 60% of their applicants can be classed as “highly-selective,” and any college that doesn’t take every one of its applicants can claim to be at least “selective.” And as a proxy for “excellent,” “selectivity” is about as protean a concept as you can imagine.)

Let me suggest two alternative metaphors that might help us think more expansively about providing post-secondary opportunities for all students, but particularly low-income students. The first is the to see each year’s college applicants as a flood plain with a river that regularly overflows its banks and frequently carves new courses for itself. There is no strict path to the mouth of the river and detours are frequent. To be able to control it enough to make it a viable resource, all the communities (colleges) in the flood plain must work together to address the overflows at each point. Colleges themselves would work together to ensure that the flood of students is taken care of and the flow is controlled constructively.

One way to do this would be for colleges themselves to create a national fund to support low-income students in colleges across the country. Institutions would be contribute a percentage of their endowment income to a national pool that less-endowed colleges could draw on to support a larger percentage of lower-income students while helping them maintain their financial stability. The wealthier colleges, at the same time, would maintain their own percentages of low-income students at current levels or higher (i.e., no passing on poorer students to those lower in the floodplain). As the river flowed, excess capacity could be absorbed by colleges and universities now able to draw on funds dedicated specifically to educating as many capable students as possible.

The other metaphor I suggest is that of the Russian nesting doll, with each doll representing another issue to be considered. The habit of seeing the path to college as linear fails to take into account the complexities that arise at each step of the process. Uncovering one almost inevitably leads to another. So if 35,000 capable low-income students are not going to college or selective colleges, as Hoxby, et al, suggest, it’s not necessarily only because of finances; there are cultural (one doll), social (another), personal (another), school (another), institutional capacity (another) and other issues (more dolls) that affect students’ decisions. All these layers need to be addressed to really tackle the problems we face getting high-achieving low-income students to college and beyond.

If we want our “elite institutions of higher learning [to] look less like an aristocracy and more like the meritocracy they are supposed to embody” we need to abandon the kind of thinking that enables us to use terms like “elite institutions” or think of college access as a restricted “pipeline” to those endpoints. To build capacity, we need to think more broadly, bring every institution in on a cooperative and comprehensive plan, and establish a more expansive view of the collegiate universe that goes well beyond the efforts of any one institution or type of institution. This would be a challenge to colleges used to competing for students, but it would also mark a step toward a more equitable distribution of educational resources at the post-secondary level. The way to make top colleges less aristocratic is to stop seeing them as an ultimate endpoint but rather part of the larger effort, and act accordingly.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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