By News producer
NBC News
updated 6/23/2005 6:58:43 AM ET 2005-06-23T10:58:43

We never get tired of hearing my father-in-law’s story.  He grew up in Yonkers, N.Y., with his parents, aunt and 11 brothers and sisters, in the heart of a Slovak immigrant community. 

He recalls what it was like to get a laboratory job in the same carpet factory where his father performed such tough, manual labor.  When he ran into his father at work, his dad would break into a big grin — he could see his son was on a different path.

With the help of a generous scholarship my father-in-law obtained an engineering degree from Carnegie Tech. He then used fellowship money to obtain a Masters degree from Harvard.  

The Korean War “sidetracked him” — he almost died and received a Silver Star. But once he recovered from his injuries, his education was his best weapon. He went into corporate America and has lived a good life.   

I love that story. But will today’s kids, whose parents work in factories — or in schools, police departments or insurance companies, for that matter — have the chance to tell a similar story?             

Income gap still affects education
In America today, education is the main key to success. The income gap between the college-educated vs. non-college-educated is almost 70 percent. 

But as a recent issue of “The Economist” magazine pointed out, there is a “paradox at the heart of a new meritocracy.”

In America’s most selective colleges, only 3 percent of students come from the bottom quarter in income, and only 10 percent come from the bottom halfof the income bracket.  

Why so few from the bottom half? According to the report, American schools are just not doing a good job of educating, testing and preparing students, especially underprivileged children.  And it is a cycle — educated parents are doing a pretty good job of giving their children the educational tools they need — and the class discrepancy gets wider.  

These are enormous issues. But in the meantime, what are folks in the university system attempting to do to make college more accessible to lower-income, and equally important, middle-income students?   

Pitfalls of aid
The Brookings Institution hosted a forum to discuss the new book “Equity and Excellence in American Education,” co-authored by William G. Bowen, Martin A. Kurzweil, and Eugene M. Tobin, a few months ago which provided a window into the difficult choices educators face as they try to level the playing field.

Take the comments of Sandy Ungar, president of Goucher College in Baltimore. The college recently cut back merit-based financial aid to increase need-based financial aid. 

Ungar got calls from parents, some in the top earnings bracket, who questioned why their children were not receiving the merit aid. Some folks would say these children have worked hard in school and have earned it. 

But Ungar said that college should not be seen as just another commodity one bargains for. “How do we deal with the very real need to address this access for lower-income groups while we have this extraordinary pressure from people who, to a considerable extent, can well afford to pay or can manage to pay and they are not willing to do so?”

'Levelers' that don't work
Merit-aid was not the only issue put out on the table. Josh Weiner, of the Jack Kent Cook Foundation, brought up the lack of transfer students as another factor that could be limiting opportunities for many lower- income students. Almost half of American students attend community colleges, but in over 30 top private schools, “fewer than 1 in 1,000 students started at a community college.”

And what should be done with athletic scholarships, since many do not believe they increase social or socioeconomic diversity? Others are also wondering how to make state universities more “representative” of their state — a former professor at the University of Vermont related that in 1995, the median student family income was $102,000 — but the state median income was $29,000. 

To go back to square one — what can be done to help level the playing field?

The authors of “Equity and Excellence in American Education” found that selective colleges really are “need-blind” when it comes to income — low-income white child with similar scores to an upper-middle-class white child is not treated any better or worse when it comes to admissions. And if the low-income child is accepted, he or she does not under-perform academically. 

To level the playing field, they advocate some bold measures — they urge “selective” institutions to provide “at least a modest admissions advantage to students from low socioeconomic backgrounds,” as well as to continue race-sensitive admissions.

But University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann countered that a proposal that concentrates on aid to low-income families risks forgetting the middle-income families who also increasingly need help to pay for the high costs of college. 

As educators wrestle with these difficult issues, the facts remain. The gap between college and non-college folks’ earnings is almost 70 percent.  If college is the leg up in today’s economy, what sacrifices should be made by families, colleges, and students to ensure that the story of the relative who “made it all the way from here to there” is not relegated to old family albums?

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