Study: Public universities focus recruitment on wealthy and white students

Earlier this month, federal investigators blew the cover of wealthy parents who allegedly went too far to buy their children a ticket to college.

But that case was only a piece of a larger picture. A report released Tuesday has provided more insight into how rich people are advantaged in the college admissions process.

Researchers from UCLA and the University of Arizona found that public universities’ trips to attract potential students systematically favor those who come from wealthy families. During these recruitment trips, college representatives typically try to sell the school to students by discussing campus life, academic programs and the application process.

But the study found that representatives from these public universities — which are often strapped for funding — prioritize recruiting prospective students from affluent and white communities.

The national debate on access to higher education “often blames first-generation or low-income students for not having the right achievements,” said Ozan Jaquette, one of the study authors.

“(But) universities are purposely recruiting middle-achieving, high-income students because they need tuition revenue.”

The researchers gathered a comprehensive list of recruitment events for 15 public research universities. The Joyce Foundation, which advocates for education and racial equity, commissioned the report.

The study found that out-of-state recruitment visits were concentrated in high schools that served affluent communities — generally, in which the median income was over $100,000.

In addition, the universities “consistently exhibited racial bias” in their out-of-state visits. Admissions representatives, who made most of their recruiting trips out of state, were significantly less likely to go to high schools with a high percentage of black, Latino and Native American students, the researchers found.

State universities rely on tuition from nonresidents

The schools’ focus on affluent, out-of-state students are in response to state cuts on higher education.

“As public universities have faced funding cuts, they have to make that money up somewhere and what has happened is that they’ve gone to other states to find wealthier students who can pay full tuition to make up for the budget cuts,” said Sameer Gadkaree, a senior program officer at the Joyce Foundation.

Out-of-state recruitment visits vastly outnumbered in-state trips, the report found. Nearly half of the public universities the study looked at made more than twice as many out-of-state visits as in-state visits.

The University of Alabama was the worst offender of all the schools that researchers looked at, Jaquette said.

In 2017, the school made 4,349 recruitment visits. Only 392 of the visits occurred in Alabama, and recruiters largely neglected high schools in what’s known as Alabama’s “Black Belt,” which enrolls the largest concentration of students of color.

The out-of-state visits followed a similar trend, focusing on schools in affluent and predominantly white areas.

The University of Alabama said in a statement that high school visits are not the school’s only student recruitment method.

“UA’s out-of-state population has had a positive effect on providing additional financial support and enrollment growth that has expanded our student body, enhanced our honors college and highlighted student achievements,” a University of Alabama spokeswoman said in the statement, sent Tuesday to CNN. “The growth also supports our goal of enriching a learning environment that attracts and supports a diverse student body.”

UMass Amherst, also mentioned in the report, said in a statement that some schools “lack the resources to consistently hold college fairs.”

“We work directly with counselors to identify potential students, build strong partnerships with community-based organizations who serve these students, and have created programming to bring more (underrepresented minority) students to our campus for extended periods to help them envision a future as a college student, especially as a UMass Amherst student,” a school spokesman said. “We need to do more, but we believe we are on the right path.”

They’re missing out on underrepresented groups

Gadkaree, of the foundation that commissioned the report, said state universities are engines of mobility that are crucial to low-income and minority students. But the study showed access to these institutions is heavily skewed.

“Public universities have a really important role to play in that college degrees are increasingly the path to a stable job with good wages,” Gadkaree said. “Access to those universities is really important.”

Wil Del Pilar is the vice president of higher education policy at The Education Trust, an educational equity advocacy group. He encouraged higher education institutions to “be intentional about going to schools where they haven’t traditionally gotten students.”

“Schools continue to perpetuate inequality by going to the same schools over and over again instead of exploring schools that may not have a good counselor” or don’t receive as much state funding, Del Pilar said.

He added that recruiters should also provide opportunities for students to receive application-fee waivers and help them understand the application process.