Elite Colleges Look Like Country Clubs. These Funders Want to Change That

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously called Princeton University "the pleasantest country club in America." And while today's most selective colleges are far more diverse than they were in Fitzgerald's day, there's been lots of attention lately on just how few students from low-income households can be found on such campuses.

Studies show that more than two-thirds of the students enrolled at the most selective and competitive colleges and universities come from families with incomes in the top 25 percent. Meanwhile, more than half of students from low- and middle-income families do not even bother to apply to these institutions, even if their academic records suggest a high probability of success. These facts stand as another disturbing indicator of stagnant social mobility in the United States. 

One funder worried about this problem, it turns out, is Michael Bloomberg—whose foundation has been moving aggressively this year to expand its funding areas and start to make a bigger dent in spending down Bloomberg's $35 billion fortune. When the 2014 numbers come in, we wouldn't be surprised if Bloomberg Philanthropies ranks as the world's second or third top foundation by giving, after Gates and the Open Society Foundations. 

This week, Bloomberg announced it was spearheading a coalition of organizations with the goal of getting more top performing students from low-income families into selective colleges and universities. As well, the initiative aims to make sure these kids graduate from such schools—tackling a related challenge to higher ed equity that preoccupies many funders these days. 

The idea has its genesis in a meeting Bloomberg convened a year ago at his Madison Avenue headquarters with more than a dozen education experts. Looking for ways to impact higher education beyond his alma maters of Harvard and Johns Hopkins, the discussion eventually centered on high-performing, low-income students, which the former mayor decided to make a funding priority.

We can see why this angle would appeal to Bloomberg, who has long styled himself as a booster of meritocracy and the notion that smart people (and smart ideas) should rise to the top.

Bloomberg Philanthropies is pumping $10 million into the two-year effort, with an additional $1 million coming from the Heckscher Foundation for Children, another funder interested in comprehensive college readiness and access programs. Other partners in this coalition include Khan Academy, College Board, and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.

College counselors will feature prominently in this new initiative. They will advise students on where and how to apply for admission and financial aid. The plan is to hire 130 full-time college counselors and 4,000 college students as part-time advisers. They will reach out to low-income students via video chat, email, text message, and telephone in an effort to provide the same network of supports that are commonplace for more affluent students. What's more, the counselors will themselves be college graduates from low- and moderate-income backgrounds, giving the program a message of "I did it, so can you."

Already, the Bloomberg-led coalition has emailed 24,000 low-income high school students whose academic records suggest a potential to succeed at top colleges. Many of the eligible students will receive application fee waivers. Research suggests such waivers and other basic college information can alter the behavior of low-income students, who often believe highly selective colleges are out of reach. Overall, the initiative hopes to help as many as 65,000 students from modest backgrounds apply to, enroll in, and graduate from the nation's more selective institutions of higher education.

Research will form another arm of this initiative. University researchers will evaluate the program to assess which parts are having the greatest impact, which in turn will shape future funding decisions.

The effort is worthwhile. Past research indicates that when students from these targeted populations apply to the top schools, they graduate at about the same rates as their wealthier counterparts. Further, this access pays off later in life, as students who graduate from these colleges have lifetime earnings that are about 25 percent higher than those who attend less selective institutions.