A study published last month revealed the extent of economic inequality in elite universities across the nation, highlighting Claremont McKenna’s extremely low accessibility and high outcome rates. Based on 30 million anonymous tax records, the Equality of Opportunity Project calculated that the college’s “overall mobility index,” a measurement which reflects both access and outcomes, was one of the lowest in the country, but in the middle of other elite colleges’.
Access: Despite equalizing policies, the student body is skewed toward the very rich.
CMC placed 19 out of 2,137 colleges for highest income inequality, and was one of 38 colleges in the nation which had more students from families in the top 1 percent than in the entire bottom 60 percent. The reason for this disparity is difficult to pin down. The authors of the study distinguish affordability and access, arguing that while many colleges focus on making attendance affordable, less efforts are made to expand access.
CMC is one of the forerunners in the push to make college more affordable. Admission to CMC for domestic students is need-blind, which means that the college neither looks at nor considers an applicant’s economic background when granting admissions.* In addition, CMC is one of the 50 colleges that also meets 100 percent of demonstrated financial need. Most colleges offer a financial aid package which leaves a gap between the Expected Family Contribution calculated by the FAFSA and the total educational cost, but CMC covers 100 percent of the difference, said Jefferson Huang, Vice President of Admissions and Financial Aid. “We don’t gap our students. Period. It’s an important signal to families who may need financial aid to attend CMC, that we’re not going to leave them in the cold,” he said.
Although these policies should theoretically increase the number of students from the lower economic strata, the data shows that compared to the top quantile, the number of students from poor backgrounds is a lot smaller. Vice President Huang said the disparity might be partly due to “sticker shock.”
“You know, if you look at a car and you see the sticker price on it, that’s where that metaphor comes from: ‘Wow, that’s expensive and I’m in shock from that,’” he said. “And that can be a real factor for families.”
Rory Fontenot ‘19, Student Director of Guest Relations at Admissions, echoed this sentiment and said that CMC’s stereotype as a rich school almost prevented him from applying. “That’s kind of the idea people have of CMC: it’s a small school, but it’s a small school mostly made up of very wealthy people.”
There is no economic data on who applies to CMC, however, a large percentage of students are accepted through Early Decision (ED). CMC Professor of Economics Janet Kiholm Smith, who has published research on the impact of ED policies on student diversity, suggests that students in ED applicant pool could be more financially secure than those who apply through Regular Decision.
“ED provides a way for colleges to effectively collude on financial aid offers since an ED offer of admission effectively binds the student to the school without full knowledge of possible financial aid offers from other colleges,” Professor Smith said. “This suggests that students from wealthier families who are less concerned with financial aid are more likely to apply early decision.” Based on the Equality of Opportunity Project, Professor Smith observed that “the schools with large percentages of top 1 percent-ers are those schools that are aggressive users of ED. On the other hand, ED policies targeted at high income students can free up funds to be used for financial aid offers to lower income students.”
Georgette DeVeres, Associate Vice President and Dean of Admission & Financial Aid at CMC, said that the college was aware of the correlation between ED policies and diversity, and this was part of the reason for re-partnering with QuestBridge, which introduces more diverse applicants to the ED pool.**
Both VP Huang and Fontenot pointed out the importance of economic diversity on campus and especially in classrooms. “It’s important especially when you’re talking about what we should do with respect to the poor in politics or economics courses ” Fontenot said. “If you’re in a classroom full of people who have never really been through that or seen the government programs carried out, then I think you’re losing a lot.”
VP Huang said the college is making efforts to increase affordability by augmenting the financial aid budget through the Student Imperative. And the administration is tackling accessibility through exposure and recruitment programs such as QuestBridge, Prep for Prep and DecemberFest. With these initiatives, he said the school is working toward demonstrating that CMC is both accessible and affordable.
“This report came along and confirmed much of what we already felt intuitively, and knew what we wanted to work on. And are actually already working on,” VP Huang said.
Outcomes: “The alumni exhibit the same traits they exhibit as students”
Claremont McKenna ranked as one of the top colleges in the nation for economic outcomes, although similar to other elite colleges, with a high average income at age 34 of $69,900. Michelle Chamberlain, Associate Vice President and Dean of Student Opportunities attributed the success rate first to the students’ initiative and leadership, which are carried over to when they are alumni. These traits are combined with access to nationally-ranked parent and alumni networks.
“The amount that those two groups give back, financially yes, but also just in terms of other resources: networks, opportunities to visit companies, one-on-one dinners, and Ath speeches, I think that’s what makes such a significant difference,” she said.
Dean Chamberlain is the director of the newly-dedicated Soll Center for Student Opportunity which coordinates many of these networking and career coaching events. One thing she pointed out was the center’s recent efforts to increase participation of students with financial need, such as paying for networking trips and even buying a suit for a student.
“It would break my heart if I found out a student didn’t apply for a networking trip because they didn’t know if they could afford it,” she said. “I mean, that’s not what we’re made of.”
The Soll Center just conducted the first six-month-out survey of graduates, which Dean Chamberlain said is more accurate than the senior survey before graduation. The data offers an optimistic perspective of student outcomes, as only 4 percent were still seeking employment. Dean Chamberlain said that success was a reason many people came to the college.
“Even though I don’t like our mobility index looked at with the lens of access added on to it, I do think that once you’re here, I would argue it’s hard to find an institution that’s trying harder to support.”
Mobility: The few poor students here do really well
The Equality of Opportunity Project developed and calculated two different metrics of mobility.*** The first calculated the percent of students who moved from the bottom 20 percent to the top 20 percent, calculated for CMC at 3 percent. This places CMC the third highest in California and the ninth highest in the nation. Dean Chamberlain said that this mobility statistic was more noteworthy than the high outcomes. “Recognizing that salary is not everything, I think that number, that social mobility, which we know how difficult that is in every society, that’s a number I would be proud of.”
The outcomes for rich and poor students are similar, indicating that poor students are not disadvantaged when they emerge into the job market as CMC graduates. Fontenot said this is reassuring.
“The mobility aspect in that article is really great, and something I’ve already seen” he said. “I’ve never been worried that coming to the school, finishing, and leaving, would leave me in a position where I started, and I think a lot of that is owed to the alumni network and our Career Services Center.”
The second metric looked at the number of students who moved up two or more income quantiles. The authors said this factored in both access and outcomes because it looked how many students started out in the lower quantiles and then advanced. In this category, CMC ranked almost at the bottom, likely brought down by low access. Fontenot said scholarships like the Kravis Scholars were proof that the school was trying to increase access, but could do a lot more to facilitate conversations about wealth and poverty on campus.
“I hope by the end of my four years here we [scholars] are given more of an opportunity to be present on campus,” he said. “Just making people aware of what the experience of growing up poor is, what it’s like, what it means. Because it’s very, very different, and I think it’s important to share about that.”
The authors of the study raise questions about the role of higher education in economic mobility in the US and CMC’s efforts in comparison to other institutions. Looking at the numbers, Fontenot is optimistic about the future.
“Growing up in poverty you’re always told about the poverty circle, and it’s just really hard to break out of.” Fontenot said. “Once you’re poor it’s hard not to be. And college is really the only way to not be. Here I am, and I’m happy about that.”
*CMC is need-aware for international students, who are not included in this study. International students make up 18% of CMC’s student body. As for transfer students, there are times when admission is need-aware, and other times, such as now, when it is need-blind. There are 7 colleges in the US that are need-blind for all students.
**155 students were accepted through Early Decision I for CMC class of 2021. Four of these had applied through QuestBridge.
*** A recent article in The Student Life about the income mobility of the 5C’s slightly misrepresented this data, claiming that 68 percent of students moved from the bottom to the top income quantile, when the real number is 3 percent. 68 is the percent of students who started in the bottom bracket and moved to the top bracket.