The Farce of Two CMCs: A Rebuttal to The Student Life

In today’s knowledge-based economy, higher education has become increasingly important in influencing social and economic prosperity. Unfortunately, education is an opportunity that is still not afforded to many. In an effort to alleviate this problem, colleges have tried to implement policies such as affirmative action to increase racial diversity. To increase socio-economic diversity, they have used tools such as Pell Grants and need blind admissions. In the TSL’s “A Tale of Two CMCs,” Carlos Ballesteros argues that CMC has actively sought to exclude low-income minority students from the student body. Ballesteros points out that, as international student admission numbers have risen, the admission of low-income minority students has fallen. This is relevant since CMC does not offer any financial aid to international students outside of merit scholarships, implying that international students have financial means that many others do not. He also states that, as this change has occurred, the college has simultaneously ended relations with Quest Bridge and Posse (two highly selective scholarship programs for low-income minorities). This, Ballesteros argues, supports his belief that CMC is cynically replacing low-income students with wealthy international students. There are, however, two problems in his analysis.

At the beginning of the article, Ballesteros tries to establish an implausible causal link in the general correlation between the rise of international students and decrease in low-income students; however, as we are told so many times in our statistics classes, correlation does not signify causation. A more plausible hypothesis could be that the overall number of low-income students applying to CMC has decreased in the aftermath of the Great Recession. According to the College Board’s college guidance outlines, many first generation students are not very knowledgeable about the college application process and/or are pressured to enter the workforce earlier. Keeping this in mind, due to the Great Recession and the slow recovery afterward, many low-income students probably entered the workforce instead of going to college, or opted for a more practical, skill-based education at a larger state school. Furthermore, research has shown that low-income students are less likely to apply to college in general (Fitzgerald and Delaney 2002; McDonough 1997; McDonough 1998), and are also less likely to enroll at more elite colleges (Bowen and Bok 1998; Hurtado et al. 1997)

Ballesteros also fails to give a full picture of economic diversity by limiting the scope of argument to the number of Pell grant recipients,. This is because Pell grants are fundamentally limited in their ability to measure economic diversity. Pell Grants are granted based on financial need versus cost of the school, and up to $50,000 in income. The maximum amount of funds that a student can receive through Pell grants amounts to exactly $5730. This equates to approximately 13% of CMC’s $45,000 tuition. Considering that this is such a small portion of CMC’s tuition, it is conceivable that falling Pell grant rates might actually mean that many low-income students are simply pursuing better scholarship options. Ballesteros’ argument also presupposes that the decreasing numbers of Pell grant recipients enrolled at CMC automatically implies a decrease in “economic diversity.” However, as David Leonhardt of Upshot says, “A college that enrolls many students from families making $75,000 a year may be somewhat more economically diverse than a college with an identical share of Pell recipients but fewer middle-income students.” Therefore, a better, more accurate measure of economic diversity would be calculating the number of students in each income bracket.

Additionally, Ballesteros critiques CMC’s decision to end partnerships with Questbridge and Posse as another example of CMC replacing low-income students with international ones. For those who do not know, Questbridge and Posse are full scholarship programs for low-income, high-achieving students and only partner with 35 and 51 colleges, respectively (which is a very small percentage of the 3500+ degree granting institutions in the US). Questbridge and Posse, while great programs, are also highly competitive. According to statistics from the Questbridge website, in 2013 there were 12,818 applicants to the Questbridge program. Of those applying, only 440 became finalists who were offered admission and college match scholarships. If considered a finalist, Questbridge will match the student to a partner school that they believe is a good fit for them. Many low-income students believe that Questbridge and other related programs are the only way to pay for college, but, in fact, if these students applied to many of the partner schools independently, they would have a better chance of attending that school. This is because many colleges, like CMC, offer 100% of demonstrated need. By ending their partnership with Questbridge and Posse, CMC (whose admissions are need-blind) allows low-income students to apply directly to the school they wish to attend and have a better chance to receive the money they need to attend college.

Finally, the author proposes that one solution to alleviating the decreasing number of low-income students enrolled in CMC is an income-based affirmative action policy as a solution that, like race-based affirmative action, only treats the symptoms of a broken education system. Educational equality goes beyond equating the number of students admitted in one demographic to students admitted of another demographic. The author’s entire argument falsely rests upon the assumption that the only diversity international kids bring is in the different currencies they carry. I would like to point out that, regardless of socio-economic background, international students come from an entirely different country. They bring different perspectives and experiences, which no American, regardless of socio-economic background or race could replicate. Surely, need-blind admissions policy, which CMC has, coupled with educational system reform, is a more equitable solution.

2 thoughts on “The Farce of Two CMCs: A Rebuttal to The Student Life”

  1. Dear Eugene and the CI staff,

    Thank you for your rebuttal. If I may, I’d like to respond to some of your criticisms. Please excuse the length of my response in advance.

    The fourth and eighth sentences in your first paragraph misrepresent my argument completely. They read: “Carlos Ballesteros argues that CMC has actively sought to exclude low-income minority students from the student body…This [the discontinuation of QB and POSSE] supports his belief that CMC is cynically replacing low-income students with wealthy international students.”

    There’s a difference between “actively excluding” and “cynically replacing,” as you say, and inaction; along with cutting QB and POSSE, CMC has done very limited work in its attempt to recruit low-income students. I’ll expand on this point later.

    In your second paragraph you state that I try “to establish an implausible causal link in the general correlation between the rise of international students and decrease in low-income students.”

    Here are the facts: The international student body has increased by 2 percentage points every year for the last half decade as the percentage of Pell Grant recipients has stagnated. POSEE and QB—programs aimed at bringing more low-income and/or racial minorities to campus—were discontinued in 2008/2009. This is exactly when the increase in the international student body began to occur.

    Of course, I am not of the opinion that CMC administrators are in a dark room contemplating ways to stop low-income students from coming here. But the numbers don’t lie: There has been an unprecedented drive to bring more international students whilst the numbers of low-income students has not budged.

    You then state that “[a] more plausible hypothesis could be that the overall number of low-income students applying to CMC has decreased in the aftermath of the Great Recession,” given that low-income students, as you believe, are forced to work at an earlier age and/or seek a more “practical-skill based education at a larger school.” Regardless, you cite academic work from the 90s and early 2000s to prove that “low-income students are less likely to apply to college in general and are also less likely to enroll at more elite colleges.”

    Besides the fact that your citations are outdated, the overall claim you are making is incorrect. According to an article printed in The New York Times this summer, “A series of federal surveys of selective colleges found virtually no change from the 1990s to 2012 in enrollment of students who are less well off — less than 15 percent by some measures — even though there was a huge increase over that time in the number of such students going to college.” (http://tinyurl.com/kspdnwd)

    As I mentioned earlier, CMC doesn’t recruit low-income students in a very substantial way. It is up to the college to decide where to find students and to become visible to them. This might not be CMC’s intention, but it very well should be.

    Next we have the discussion on measuring economic diversity via Pell Grants. Firstly, if a student enrolling at CMC receives the maximum amount that Pell Grants have to offer, it is likely that such student’s Expected Family Contribution is near $0. This means that CMC will pick up the rest of the tab. Your argument that PGs are too little and, as such, discourage students from attending CMC is, therefore, utterly wrong.

    I will agree with you that Pell Grants are not the ideal way of measuring such diversity, but it’s the best we got. According to your author, “By and large, though, the colleges with the largest shares of Pell recipients also have the most economically diverse student bodies – because Pell is such a large program.” (This is literally the next sentence in the same NYT article you used to cherry-pick Leonhadt. For the curious: http://tinyurl.com/lmd9rdh)

    On your critique of QuestBridge’s selection criteria, you misunderstand the point of the program and those like it. What QuestBridge and POSSE do is more than just placing low-income and/or minority students; it creates a safe and comforting space for those students to fall back on when the pressures of elite institutions are too much to bear. You cannot put a price on this. This explains the rigorous selection criteria—only students that are willing to be part of a much larger family are to be considered and ultimately accepted into the program.

    This brings us to your last paragraph, Eugene. It is here where I have the most trouble with your word selection. On your first point, claiming that university’s has no say in changing the educational landscape in which minorities and low-income students exist is very shortsighted. It is obvious that the university cannot do everything to solve educational inequality, but I can definitely do a lot.

    Your second to last sentence, however, is the most troubling. You state that my “entire argument falsely rests upon the assumption that the only diversity international kids bring is the different currencies they carry.” This is complete nonsense, nearing on the side of libel. I did not mention anything like this in my column, nor would I ever. In fact, I mention in my article the rich cultural diversity int. students bring to the college.

    Overall, you misinterpret the point of my column. I never intended to demonize int. students for their wealth. I am simply calling into question admission trends at CMC. Increasing the number of low-income students does not mean decreasing the number of intl. students. But if we are to open the door for the international elite, then we must equally strive for welcoming the students of our own lower classes.

  2. Thanks so much for the article. While I don’t agree with the thrust of the article and agree that you’ve misrepresented a number of Mr. Ballesteros’s points, I also think you’ve presented some interesting arguments. I particularly enjoyed your argument regarding Pell Grants and the flaws in relying so heavily on those statistics as markers for economic diversity. So thanks for that.

    My primary concern is the way in which the QuestBridge program has been portrayed. It appears as if the author is either unaware or untruthful in portraying how this program actually works. In the article, QuestBridge is portrayed as an uber-selective organization that, through its process, keeps many low income students from applying directly to their college of choice. This is simply not the case. While QuestBridge is incredibly competitive, it doesn’t any in way, shape or form keep students from applying directly to a college or university. If a student is not selected as a QuestBridge finalist, that student is more than welcome to apply to colleges directly.

    The author states that “by ending their partnership with Questbridge and Posse, CMC (whose admissions are need-blind) allows low-income students to apply directly to the school they wish to attend and have a better chance to receive the money they need to attend college.” How is this the case? In what way does CMC ending its relationship with QuestBridge allow more low-income students to apply directly to CMC? Simply put, students not accepted as QuestBridge finalists can still apply directly to CMC. I say this as someone not at all associated with QuestBridge, but as someone who has actually taken the time to understand the different organizations working to provide access to low-income students.

    Again, thanks so much for your thoughts and your time in presenting your opinions to the Claremont community.

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