Admission impossible: Preferential option for the poor at Catholic colleges

By Gerald J. Beyer| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Social Justice Young Adults
Catholic colleges and universities fall behind their secular counterparts in an effort to recruit, accept, and keep poor students.

Many Catholic colleges and universities boast uplifting stories about reaching out to promising students from disadvantaged backgrounds. As a professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, I have had the privilege of learning with a remarkable young man who overcame incredible odds to get here.

He grew up in a slum in Nairobi, Kenya. As a child he went to bed hungry in a home with no running water. A bright and intellectually curious child, he attended one of Nairobi’s best high schools until he was forced to drop out to support himself. At this point he became a “Chokoraa”—a “homeless scavenger.” Life for him on the streets was unimaginable. He escaped multiple brushes with death while some of his friends perished violently.

Not knowing if and how he would survive, this young man’s fortune took a dramatic turn. A missionary from the United States provided him with the financial assistance to complete high school. Moved by her faith and generosity, he decided to devote his life to assisting children like him by helping to establish a boarding school. While helping these children, life presented him with an opportunity that he would never have imagined: a chance to attend a university in the United States.

A graduate of St. Joseph’s University who was volunteering in Nairobi put him in contact with several Jesuits there. They recommended him for admission to St. Joseph’s. Thanks to the support of the university community, he was able to attend. The efforts of the alumnus and the university embody the ideals of Catholic social teaching, which obligates all people to stand in solidarity with the poor.

Although Catholic colleges and universities admit underprivileged students, stories like this are relatively rare on our campuses, including St. Joseph’s. Most of the poor, both in the United States and globally, remain excluded from the halls of our institutions. Most of our students come from affluent backgrounds. Although we can and should celebrate stories like this one, many Catholic universities fail to sufficiently embody Catholic social teaching’s option for the poor in our recruiting, admissions, and retention policies.

The Pell grant indicator is generally considered the best, albeit imperfect, tool for estimating low-income students. Pell-eligible students come from families earning less than $40,000 per year. This benchmark demonstrates that some Catholic colleges and universities have been more successful than others in recruiting, admitting, and retaining economically disadvantaged students.

Oddly enough, Catholic universities with the largest endowments lag behind smaller, less well-endowed schools in this regard. At more than $5 billion, the University of Notre Dame’s endowment dwarfs all other Catholic universities. Yet only 8 percent of its student body comes from low-income families. Boston College, which has a $1.5 billion endowment, has 9 percent Pell recipients. Georgetown University follows with the next largest endowment (about $1 billion), with 7 percent Pell recipients.

Like these schools, many other Catholic universities fall near the bottom of U.S. News and World Report’s “Economic Diversity” category in its “America’s Best Colleges” report (which uses the Pell grant indicator). For example, in the Master’s North category, Fairfield University in Connecticut, St. Joseph’s University, Loyola University of Maryland, Providence College in Rhode Island, and Villanova University in Pennsylvania occupy five out of the six lowest rankings. Each school has less than 13 percent of students receiving Pell grants.

Many Catholic schools that are less endowed than Notre Dame, Boston College, and Georgetown have more Pell-eligible students. For example, Seton Hall University in New Jersey (19 percent), Loyola University of New Orleans (21 percent), and LaSalle University in Philadelphia (25 percent) fare much better. Smaller schools such as Trinity University in Washington, D.C. (51 percent), Chestnut Hill College in Pennsylvania (32 percent), St. Peter’s College in New Jersey (36 percent), and Xavier University of Louisiana (50 percent) have even more.

However, many Catholic institutions resemble top-flight secular institutions like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, where 7, 9, and 10 percent of undergraduates receive Pell grants, respectively. This seems paradoxical because they—like Notre Dame, Boston College, and Georgetown—practice “need-blind” admissions. They do not consider a student’s financial background in making admissions decisions and they promise to meet 100 percent of a student’s demonstrated need.

This has put a small dent in the problem. But varying estimates suggest only 12 to 27 schools are need-blind. Of those, some may not be truly need-blind because their financial aid packages rely on loans, which may scare off the economically downtrodden.

Moreover, the admissions standards at prestigious institutions often create an insurmountable barrier for economically disadvantaged students, even if schools meet 100 percent of their financial need with scholarships and grants. Economically blighted areas have abysmal public schools that seldom prepare students to meet admission requirements.

Thus, in spite of generous financial aid policies at some schools, one is 25 times more likely to encounter a wealthy student on a college campus than an economically disadvantaged student. Only 3 percent of the student body from the top 146 American colleges comes from the bottom income quartile, while about 75 percent comes from the top quartile. In my judgment, Catholic social teaching deems this situation unjust and unacceptable.

For Catholics, the option for the poor is not optional. As Pope John Paul II stated in Laborem Exercens, the church must adopt it as a “sign of fidelity to Christ.” 

The needs and rights of the poor must inform the lifestyle choices of all individual Christians. In addition, the church’s preferential option for the poor must be translated into social and economic policies to overcome the “scandalous” situation of the poor.

Historically the church has applied this teaching by advocating concrete rights of the poor, including the right to education. However, modern Catholic social teaching has not explicitly included higher education under the rubric of the option for the poor, even though it has long supported the right to primary and secondary education as a means of empowerment. Yet as Catholic ethicist Father David Hollenbach, S.J. has argued, Catholic social teaching’s understanding of the needs and rights of the marginalized has always developed in light of the times.

For example, Pope Leo XIII’s understanding of the “misery and wretchedness” of the poor and the “callousness of employers and the greed of unrestrained competition” during the Industrial Revolution prompted him to promote the right to just wages in Rerum Novarum. Certain realities in contemporary American society make it clear that the time has come to make higher education a requirement of Catholic social teaching’s option for the poor.

First, a college degree is the single largest predictor of the ability to escape poverty and marginalization in the United States today. From 1979 to 1997 the income gap between college and high school graduates skyrocketed from 31 to 66 percent. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the median income of college alumni was $45,000 in 2009. For high school graduates it was $30,000. For those without a high school diploma it was $21,000. Thus, less education means one is more likely to fall below the poverty line ($22,050 for a family of four in 2009).

Second, a number of recent studies indicate that access to higher education in the United States has increasingly become an exclusive privilege of the wealthy. For example, according to a recent report on flagship public universities published by The Educational Trust, 44 out of 50 schools have fewer low-income students today than they did in 1992.

Daniel Golden points out in The Price of Admission (Crown) that many colleges and universities overlook low-income students because they do not have “cash value” to the development office.

Not having a college degree seriously detracts from the ability of the poor to have a voice in society. As the late prominent American political philosopher John Rawls persuasively argued, the “political liberty” of the poor is impaired in a society where economic status (which is largely determined by educational level) grants unequal access to the media, political parties, elected offices, and lawmakers.

In a society like ours, the disadvantage of the poor in the political sphere makes it unlikely that their economic, social, and cultural needs will be met. In short, economic status, social class, and the ability to have an effective political voice are determined by educational attainment to a greater degree than ever before in American history.

Catholic institutions of higher learning must adopt recruiting, admissions, financial aid, and retention policies that reflect the option for the poor. As the 1986 document “The General Characteristics of Jesuit Education” put it, the option for the poor must be embodied “both in the students that are admitted and the type of formation that is given.”

In this vein, John Paul II rightly contended in Ex Corde Ecclesiae that Catholic universities must “make university education accessible to all those who are able to benefit from it, especially the poor.” The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has pledged “to make Catholic schools models of education for the poor.” It makes little sense to exclude higher education from this commitment.

Judging by the statistics, many Catholic colleges and universities have not prioritized the option for the poor in this way. In difficult financial times these schools must make tough budgetary choices, balancing needs for academic resources, faculty compensation, and other things with the demands of Catholic social teaching. Let me suggest seven measures our schools might use to improve.

1. Abandon the SAT requirement. Some researchers contend that it has built-in ethnic and class biases. Moreover, low-income students cannot afford expensive SAT coaching courses, thereby giving another advantage to the rich. In addition, the predictive value of the test is debatable at best.

A recent study by Thomas Espenshade has predicted a 30 percent increase in black, Latino, and low-income students by making the SAT optional. It claims to “show unambiguously” that such increases in diversity would take place.  Moreover, making the SAT optional would raise the average GPA of incoming students. A number of excellent schools have already made the test optional and confirmed this claim. College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, for example, made its SAT scores optional in 2005. Since then their enrollment of low-income students has bumped up 2 percent. Its president, Jesuit Father Michael MacFarland, contends that the quality of incoming students has increased.

2. Create admissions preferences for the economically disadvantaged. As Golden demonstrates, our nation’s top universities admit many legacies, athletes, faculty children, and “development cases” who are underprepared. If administrators and admissions officers are sometimes willing to sacrifice the overall academic caliber of the student body for them, they should at least be willing to apply that same flexibility to economically disadvantaged students. This would be more consistent with the option for the poor. Furthermore, studies by the Century Foundation have demonstrated that giving preferences to low-income students rather than athletes and legacies would increase graduation rates.

3. Aggressively recruit economically disadvantaged students. By using new nonprofit organizations such as QuestBridge, which links bright students of lesser means with select institutions, Catholic schools can help convince students who often mistakenly doubt they belong at prestigious schools that they indeed do belong.

4. Foster social and educational environments conducive to learning foreconomically disadvantaged students. Catholic institutions should challenge the materialistic, consumerist culture that pervades them, thereby echoing Catholic social teaching’s rejection of it. Students who cannot afford Hollister and iPads  might feel more comfortable if we address this issue more forthrightly. In addition, if some disadvantaged students matriculate underprepared, the option for the poor requires giving them the academic support they need to thrive.

5. Encourage creative development and fundraising. The experience of schools like Berea College, a Christian college founded by abolitionists in Kentucky, proves that there are donors eager to contribute to institutions oriented toward egalitarianism and social justice. Berea has one of the largest per capita endowments in the country and educates about 80 percent Pell recipients.

6. Involve faculty, religious community, and students in admissions. Experience shows that when these groups are involved in admissions, factors like “development potential” (read “endowment contributor”) are weighed less heavily. Rather, they can advocate on behalf of the underprivileged.

7. Partner with local primary and secondary schools. Some universities already do this in order to bolster the ailing urban public and parochial school systems. More of this might help address what author Jonathan Kozol has called educational apartheid in our country and boost the chances of students in inadequate schools of being prepared for college.

Success stories do exist at our nation’s 244 Catholic institutions of higher learning. Yet there are millions of students in our own nation and beyond who will never have the chance to participate in a college course. Catholic universities must attempt to provide access to more of them.

Given Catholic social teaching’s insistence on the option for the poor and the right to education, every trustee, administrator, faculty, staff member, and student must ask how they can change admissions and aid policies, development strategies, and resource allocation to open their doors more widely to the poor.

This article appeared in the February 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 2, page 32-35).

Image: Tim Foley