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Could Princeton’s Model Be Used in Public Schools?

May 30, 2017

David Leonardt is providing an outstanding service by developing and promoting the College Access Index, or CAI, a ranking system for colleges that places a premium on equity. Unlike the US News and World Report’s system of rankings that uses SAT scores, acceptance rates, endowments, and other easy-to-measure-but-irrelevant metrics to rank colleges, Mr. Leonardt’s  CAI “...measures how many lower-income students graduate from a college and how much they must pay to attend it“. It uses the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants as a proxy for low income entrants, and ranks only colleges who graduate 75% of entering freshmen within five years, which is a proxy for “competitive colleges”. The other factor in the CAI is the affordability, the “…tuition, fees, room and board, net of financial aid — that the college charged students from families with annual income between $30,000 and $75,000.

In a succession of columns this past week, Mr. Leonardt has profiled competitive colleges who are making an earnest effort to expand the number of undergraduates who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Today he describes Princeton’s efforts to diversify based on income, and based on his column they are doing an admirable job:

Only 6.5 percent of the class of 2007 received Pell grants, which typically go to students in the bottom half of income distribution. The share among the class of 2017, which graduates next week, is 14.9 percent. The share in both this year’s and next year’s freshman class is 21 percent.

The changes aren’t just about one statistic, either. Princeton is also enrolling more middle-class students and low-income foreigners, who are ineligible for Pell grants.

As Mr. Leonardt notes,this is not accidental. It is the result of a commitment by Christopher Eisgruber, the current college President to, in Mr. Leonardt’s words, “…create urgency in his own community about the American class divide — a divide that has led to anger, alienation and the most worrisome political situation in decades.” 

And that challenge should extend to public education as well. I know from reading his columns regularly that Mr. Leonardt is an advocate for charter schools and the choice model in place in NYC, which requires parents of middle and high school students to go through a lengthy and complicated application process. This process, which was intended, in part, to encourage the kind of even-playing field opportunity for children in the city has not done so. An article by Iris Rotberg in Education Week three years ago cited some disturbing trends that resulted from the expansion of charter schools and choice, including:

a strong link between school choice programs and an increase in student segregation by race, ethnicity, and income.

risk of segregation is a direct reflection of the design of the school choice program.

increased segregation for special education and language-minority students, as well as in increased segregation of students based on religion and culture.

She concluded her well researched article with this:

Proponents of charter schools believe they’re giving low-income and minority students opportunities they otherwise would not have had. That belief is true in some cases; all charter schools do not result in segregation. But far too many do, and the trend is unfavorable. It takes a lot of care through targeted funding and oversight to mitigate the pressures that lead to yet more segregation. But whatever motivations drive the choices families and schools make, it is important that government does not exacerbate the problem of segregation by ignoring the unintended consequences of its policies. The risk is an increasingly divided public education system.

In the intervening years between the publication of this article, with the unyielding expansion of charters and choice under the Obama administration and now with Ms. DeVos at the helm of the USDOE and a pro-privatization administration in place, it is more likely than ever that re-segregation by race and worse segregation by income will persist…. and our divided public education system will lead to anger, alienation and an even more worrisome political situation.

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