Maryland's McDaniel College closing the 'opportunity gap'

Here's what Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, said three years ago as the nation's gap between rich and poor widened toward historic levels: "I think it's a very bad development. It's creating two societies. And it's based very much, I think, on educational differences. … It leads to an unequal society, and a society which doesn't have the cohesion that we'd like to see."

As college students complete final exams and the 2013 commencement season arrives, a look at the higher education landscape suggests that the nation still has a long way to go in closing the education gap at the root of the income gap — what we should call the opportunity gap.

"Socioeconomic diversity" on campus remains elusive. One of the major challenges still includes getting smart kids from poor families into elite colleges, helping them pay tuition, and helping them succeed.

In March, a grand survey of thousands of teenagers found that most low-income, high-achieving students don't even bother to apply to top colleges and universities. The boys and girls in the study came from families making less than $41,000 a year, had A-minus or above grade averages through high school and scored in the top 10 percent on college entrance exams.

There are between 25,000 and 30,000 such students in the United States, the survey estimated. The analysis, conducted by education researchers at Stanford and Harvard, was presented at a spring conference of the Brookings Institution.

The report found that only a third of these top-performing high school seniors from families with the nation's lowest income levels attended any one of the country's most selective (and expensive) institutions, and there are about 240 of those, according to Barron's Profiles of American Colleges. By contrast, nearly 80 percent of such students from families at the highest income levels attended Barron's "Very Competitive Plus" or "Most Competitive" institutions.

The report referred to a "hidden supply" of smart kids from poor families that top schools are not reaching, despite their stated efforts to recruit them. Additionally, these students, often the first from their families to attend colleges of any kind, have limited knowledge of their choices and are reluctant to travel far from home.

"A lot of low-income and middle-income students have the inclination to stay local, at known colleges, which is understandable when you think about it," George Moran, a high school guidance counselor in Bridgeport, Conn., told The New York Times, which first reported the findings. "They didn't have any other examples, any models. Who's ever heard of Bowdoin College?"

The Brookings report made much of the fact that smart kids from poor families are missing an opportunity because attending any of the nation's 236 elite colleges and universities "would cost less than the ones the students do attend thanks to generous financial aid packages."

But another report, published last week by the New America Foundation, found that even top schools with the means to do so aren't making great financial offers — they are, instead, competing for the wealthiest students and leaving low-income kids behind.

"With their relentless pursuit of prestige and revenue, the nation's public and private four-year colleges and universities are now in danger of shutting down what has long been a pathway to the middle class for low-income and working-class students," the New America report said.

"Hundreds of public and private non-profit colleges expect the neediest students to pay an amount that is equal to or even more than their families' yearly earnings. As a result, these students are left with little choice but to take on heavy debt loads or engage in activities that reduce their likelihood of earning their degrees, such as working full-time while enrolled or dropping out until they can afford to return."

The one Maryland college that the report mentioned — and in a good way — is McDaniel in Westminster. The private, four-year liberal arts school has succeeded in recruiting bright, low-income students and helping them finance their education.

The New America report examined U.S. Department of Education data showing the "net price" — that is, the final bill after all Pell Grant aid and scholarships — for low-income students at hundreds of colleges.

McDaniel showed up on a New America "best" list, with 28 percent of its full-time students qualified for Pell Grants (that is, low-income) and their families paying an average net price of $9,778 per year. Tuition and room and board at McDaniel for the 2010-2011 academic year, the one examined in the report, was $40,340.

McDaniel has been working at this earnestly since 2006. It reports minority enrollment more than doubling from 12 percent in 2007 to 29 percent in 2012 — and nearly 40 percent of freshmen this year were first-generation collegians.

Helping bright, low-income students pay tuition is key to their success in college — it's a huge factor in whether they stay in school, and focused enough to graduate. On that count, McDaniel seems to be doing fine. The college's tracking of its 2006 cohort shows a 75 percent graduation rate for Pell Grant recipients, slightly better than the college's overall rate.

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