By Richard Pérez-Peña

New York Times News Service

As the shaded quadrangles of the nation’s elite campuses stir to life for the start of the academic year, they remain bastions of privilege. Despite promises to admit more poor students, top colleges educate roughly the same percentage of them as they did a generation ago. This is despite the fact that there are many high school seniors from low-income homes with top grades and scores: twice the percentage in the general population as at elite colleges.

A series of federal surveys of selective colleges found virtually no change from the 1990s to 2012 in enrollment of students who are less well off despite a huge increase over that time in the number of such students going to college.

Similar studies looking at a narrower range of top wealthy universities back those findings. With race-based affirmative action losing both judicial and public support, many have urged selective colleges to shift more focus to economic diversity.

This is partly because students are more likely to graduate and become leaders in their fields if they attend competitive colleges. Getting low-income students onto elite campuses is seen as a vital engine of social mobility.

Yet as Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, put it, “Higher education has become a powerful force for reinforcing advantage and passing it on through generations.”

It is true that low-income enrollment at some top colleges has been slowly climbing. And some studies suggest that colleges are well intentioned but simply ineffectual in addressing economic diversity. College leaders also point to studies showing that most low-income students with high grades and test scores do not apply to highly selective colleges.

‘Just about money’

But critics contend that on the whole, elite colleges are too worried about harming their finances and rankings to match their rhetoric about wanting economic diversity with action.

“It’s not clear to me that universities are hungry for that,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who studies college diversity. “What happens if low-income students start calling the bluff of selective universities, and do start applying in much larger numbers? Will the doors be open?”

There are elite colleges, both private and public, with three times as many recipients of Pell Grants — the main federal aid for low-income students — as some of their peers, which critics say shows that the others could be doing more. Prestigious schools like Vassar, Amherst, Harvard and the University of California system have managed to increase low-income enrollment.

“A lot of it is just about money, because each additional low-income student you enroll costs you a lot in financial aid,” said Michael Bastedo, director of the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan. “No one is going to talk openly and say, ‘Oh, we’re not making low-income students a priority.’ But enrollment management is so sophisticated that they know pretty clearly how much each student would cost.”

Since the late 1990s, top schools have made several high-profile moves to become more accessible to low- and middle-income families. The policy changes drew heavy coverage, but had limited effect, studies found, largely because poorer consumers were unaware of them.

Harvard, Princeton, the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill eliminated early admission programs that were seen as favoring affluent students. Some colleges ended the practice of including loans in financial aid packages, so that all aid came in the form of grants. Others lowered prices for all but affluent families, not requiring any contribution from parents below a certain income threshold, like $65,000.

But the colleges that ended early admissions reinstated them within a few years, after other elite schools declined to follow their lead, putting them at a disadvantage in drawing top students. Many of the benefits of the no-loan and no-parental-contribution policies went to middle-income families, and in any case, fewer than a dozen of the very wealthiest schools, like Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Stanford, fully adopted both.

In 2006, at the 82 schools rated “most competitive” by Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges, 14 percent of American undergraduates came from the poorer half of the nation’s families, according to researchers at the University of Michigan and Georgetown University who analyzed data from federal surveys. That was unchanged from 1982.

And at a narrower, more elite group of 28 private colleges and universities, including all eight Ivy League members, researchers at Vassar and Williams Colleges found that from 2001 to 2009, a period of major increases in financial aid at those schools, enrollment of students from the bottom 40 percent of family incomes increased from just 10 percent to 11 percent.

Even with the best intentions, tapping the pool of high-performing, low-income students can be hard. Studies point to many reasons poorer students with good credentials do not apply to competitive colleges, like lack of encouragement at home and at school, thinking (correctly or not) that they cannot afford it or believing they would be out of place, academically or socially.

What makes a difference

What distinguishes those who apply to elite schools is not family income or their parents’ level of education, according to a groundbreaking study published last year, but location. Exposure to just a few high-achieving peers or attending a high school with just a few teachers or recent alumni who went to highly selective colleges makes a huge difference in where low-income students apply.

So does face-to-face recruiting.

“You can make big statements about being accessible, and have need-blind admissions and really low net prices for low-income kids, but still enroll very few of those low-income kids, by doing minimal outreach,” said Catharine Bond Hill, president of Vassar College. “There has to be a commitment to go out and find them.”

Troy Simon, 21, said that without significant help from two nonprofit groups, he would not be where he is now, preparing for his junior year at Bard College. It is a long way from his chaotic childhood in a poor section of New Orleans, where he was held back in school — so far, in fact, that his story has been hailed by Michelle Obama as an example of what can be overcome.

“I was illiterate,” he said. “I clowned around in class, I didn’t understand what was going on, and no one asked too many questions about my failing grades at home.”

Separated from his family during Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed their home, he took refuge with cousins in an abandoned building. He was placed for a time in a school in Houston, where he said that at age 12, he finally began to learn to read, but after returning to New Orleans, he was arrested on suspicion of theft.

But in high school — he attended three of them — a group called College Track took him in, providing tutoring, test preparation, counseling and advice on applying to college. Then he won a Posse Foundation scholarship that paid for college and provided support services there.

“The kids that I hung out with when I was a kid that were smart, some of them are dead now, some are in prison, some of them have several kids that they can’t support,” he said. “I consider myself blessed.”

Ten to 15 years ago, when some elite colleges got more serious about economic diversity, there was a view that just increasing financial aid could turn the dial, but “I think we were a little naïve,” said Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern University, a former president of Williams College and, like Hill at Vassar, an economist specializing in the economics of higher education.

Cost remains a barrier, but so does perception, he said, adding, “It’s a psychology and sociology thing, as well as a pricing thing.”

College presidents like to say that consumers should not be scared off by high sticker prices, around $60,000 a year for top schools. But those are the numbers that draw national attention, concealing a much more tangled picture, in which true costs are hard to discern, hard to compare and wildly variable.

None of that complexity is apparent to most consumers.

“If you come from a family and a neighborhood where no one has gone to a fancy college, you have no way of knowing that’s even a possibility,” said Anthony Marx, president of the New York Public Library, and a former president of Amherst. “And if you go on their website, the first thing you’re going to look for is the sticker price. End of conversation.”