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The Ivy League’s insincere quest to recruit low-income students

Princeton has been patting itself on the back a lot lately.

In May, the New York Times ran a glowing article about Princeton’s efforts to recruit low-income students. The article, titled “Princeton — Yes, Princeton — Takes on the Class Divide” included everything you’d expect: concessions to Princeton’s history of exclusion, favorable Pell Grant statistics, and uplifting quotes from President Eisgruber. “I get up in the morning thinking about how I can bring [the transformative Princeton] experience to more people,” he said.


But it seems that even Eisgruber is guilty of that most stereotypical of Ivy League behaviors: thinking, but never doing.

The upbeat Ivy League progressiveness featured in the article felt wholly untethered from the college admissions experience of me and my high school classmates. We grew up in San Bernardino, California, where the median household income is $17,000 below the national average and the poverty rate is 21 percentage points higher. Of the city’s student population, 85 percent are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch. In other words, ours is just the sort of low-income youth community that the Ivy League claims it wants.

But at San Bernardino’s annual College Night that I attended my senior year, not a single representative from an Ivy League university showed up. I saw the blue and gold of the University of California schools, even the cardinal red of Stanford — but no crimson, and no orange and black. Hundreds of local students had gathered to survey their college options and plan for their futures, but these were futures in which the Ivies apparently had no desire to play a part.

Out of curiosity, I reached out to the college counseling staff at Harvard-Westlake School, one of the most prestigious schools not only in California but also in the nation. With an annual tuition of $37,100, students at Harvard-Westlake tend to be wealthier than those at most other high schools. So I had a feeling that Harvard-Westlake might be higher on the Ivy League’s list of priorities than, say, any school in San Bernardino.

I wasn’t wrong. According to Sharon Cuseo, one of the school's Upper School Deans, Harvard-Westlake was visited by five Ivies over the past school year: Columbia, Dartmouth, Cornell, Yale, and Harvard.

When was the last time an Ivy League university dropped by one of San Bernardino’s high schools? I called up all seven of them to find out. “Three years ago,” said Eric Sanchez, the IB coordinator at Arroyo Valley High School. “Harvard visited us because they accepted one of our students a few years before. It was the first time in at least seven years.”


That was the good news. “Never,” says Carlos Solorio, the counselor at Middle College High School. “It’s never happened.”

The conclusion I reached was stunning. The Ivies have made more visits to Harvard-Westlake in this past school year alone than they have to all high schools in San Bernardino combined, at least in recent memory. This is despite the fact that Harvard-Westlake’s upper school population is just 7 percent of the total number of students enrolled in San Bernardino high schools.

Betty Jo Knick, the college readiness resource teacher at San Bernardino High School, finds this persistent lack of attention frustrating. “I really think that there’s untapped talent at these schools that [the Ivies] are not accessing,” she said. “If they had more of a presence, the students would see them as a distinct possibility.”

But, because representatives from these schools are absent, Knick's students often adopt an unfortunate mindset that only reinforces the ugliest notions of Ivy League exclusivity. “My students think, ‘If they don’t care enough about us to come here, why should we come there and be ignored?’” she said.

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Sadly, Knick is right. During the college application process, I asked many of my friends — students with high test scores, stellar essays, and impeccable resumes — why they weren’t applying to any Ivies. The most common responses? “I’m just not good enough.” “What’s the point?” Or, “They don’t want kids like me.”

As for why I applied to Princeton? During my sophomore year, I flew over for a college tour and fell head over heels in love the moment I stepped onto its campus. But I was one of a handful of students at my school who could afford that kind of spontaneous cross-country air travel. For the rest, the closest they could get to visiting a faraway college — let alone an Ivy League university — was visiting its website, which is a poor substitute for the real thing.

These students can’t visit the Ivies. So you’d think the Ivies would visit them. But they don’t, and Knick knows why.

“I have a feeling that they’re avoiding us because they’re not getting the bang for their buck,” she says. “If they only get one student, they think it’s not worth it.”

But if the Ivies are truly committed to taking on the class divide, then they must accept that there are things more important than simply getting the biggest bang for their many buck. If that were all that mattered, then there would be no point in recruiting outside of the Harvard-Westlakes, the Phillips Exeters, and the Stuyvesants. There would be no point in taking a chance on schools in communities like San Bernardino if so many safer bets exist.

I like to think the Ivies know better than that. I like to think they understand the importance of uplifting low-income youth — not just as another public-relations opportunity, but as an ideal that is worth all the time, effort, and sincerity put into achieving it, even if it comes at a greater cost than what Ivies might be used to.

Compromises can be made. Skype presentations are one seemingly-obvious solution offered by Knick. But people like Knick, who represent these low-income communities, shouldn’t have to — and often can’t — make the first move. The balance of power is heavily tilted toward the Ivies. Will they do something with their power to create equal opportunity for all prospective students, of all socioeconomic backgrounds? Or will it just be more of the same?

None of this is intended to dismiss the progress that the Ivy League has made in raising enrollment among low-income students. But it is one thing for the Ivies to accept a few select students from low-income communities, and another for them to demonstrate a willingness to engage with these communities, many of which view these elite schools with an understandable wariness. If the Ivies want low-income students to inhabit their spaces, they must first enter the students’ spaces themselves.

Until then, it’s time to pull back the curtain on the Ivies’ insincerity. They aren’t interested in taking on the class divide. One hand may be brandishing a sledgehammer, seemingly poised to break down historic barriers to access, but it’s just waving for the cameras. As for the other one — it’s still busy shaking hands with the same wealthy crowd.

Lou Chen is a music major from San Bernardino, Calif. He can be reached at