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Jewish Journal

Making change happen in L.A.

by  David A. Lehrer

August 6, 2013 | 2:58 pm

Last week’s The New York Times had an article that ought to remind us, lest we have forgotten or never knew, just how lucky we in Los Angeles are. We have two of the universities in the country that are leading their peers in admission of students with academic promise from poor families---our city provides unequaled opportunity for talented students, no matter their economic circumstance.

USC and UCLA are virtually without equals in the private and public university worlds when it comes to opening the doors of opportunity.

In an article entitled, “Efforts to Recruit Poor Students Lag at Some Elite Colleges” the Times revealed that while many top colleges “profess a growing commitment to recruiting poor students” there are “wide disparities” in low income enrollment among the most competitive private schools.
The article quotes the president of Vassar who bluntly observed that enrolling disadvantaged students is a measure of a university’s commitment to change, “It’s a question of how serious you are about it” (recruiting low income students). Catherine Bond Hill, Vassar’s head, commented on the schools with multi-billion dollar endowments and numerous tax exemption who aren’t serious, she said, “shame on you.”

In recent months there has been a good deal of focus on the “income inequality gap” that exists in our country. The United States is ranked fifth from the bottom in terms of the twenty members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (the world’s most economically advanced nations). There is little doubt that educational opportunity is among the most effective vehicles to move individuals form lower to higher socio-economic strata.

The Times’ article makes clear that a university needs commitment and seriousness if it aims to be successful in identifying, encouraging and enrolling poor kids. In the real world of costs and benefits there is little incentive to admit these students who not only need financial assistance and support while in school but whose presence often hurts universities where they least want to be impacted--- the popular rankings by US News and others. Those “best” lists “reward schools not only for recruiting higher performing students, but also for increasing spending on salaries and buildings, but not on financial aid or diversity.” [Emphasis added]

So such motivation as exists has to be self-generated and largely propelled by the desire to do the right thing. It costs the universities money in tuition lost (despite the Pell Grants from the federal government and Cal Grants from the state) and it is expensive to identify and nurture talented but disadvantaged kids (a recent New York Times article, about which we have written, indicates that the University of California has spent as much as $85 million on outreach to the disadvantaged).

Despite the disincentives to doing what few will give them credit for, there are universities that have done an outstanding job in enrolling low-income students and two of the best are right here in Los Angeles.

In terms of private universities nation-wide, USC is one of the best. It has 22% of its students, over 1/5 of the student body, receiving Pell Grants----most of whose families make under $40,000 per year (as of 2010). To put that number in perspective, Stanford enrolls 18% of Pell grantees, Yale 14%, Georgetown 13%, Notre Dame 13% and Washington University 7%.

These are kids who come from homes where it is almost guaranteed there weren’t funds to pay for the extras that many middle class families take for granted in prepping their kids for college---SAT prep courses, private tutors, college counselors who walk them through the application process--- and where there may have been no previous college attendees in the family. Most of these kids have demonstrated promise, invariably against great odds.

UCLA, about which The New York Times (and we) have written before, leads the nation in its enrolling of Pell Grant eligible students (30.7%) among elite universities.

In Los Angeles we are fortunate to have two of the most committed universities in the country who reach out, recognize potential and enroll the talented among the disadvantaged. Among all the private universities in the country USC is number 3, and the most committed public university is UCLA (number 1 in its socio economic diversity).

Neither school gets much credit for what they are doing (the recent articles are anomalies); in fact they usually get hammered by people, groups and politicians with agendas. It’s time to acknowledge the fact that Los Angeles has reason to be proud of the important contribution that both schools are making to our community, our state and our nation.

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