According to the CBO’s numbers, the income of the bottom 10% of wage earners, on the other hand, decreased by 5.3% between 1979 and 2013. During that same period, wage growth for the broad middle class was generally stagnant.

There has been a great deal of discussion recently about the role higher education may be playing in promoting inequality. Because colleges and universities compete with each other for the wealthiest students, institutions constantly up the ante on the amenities they offer these students – state-of-the-art recreation facilities, high tech dorms and themed dining are not cheap. These perks drive up the cost of tuition, which makes higher education less and less affordable to students from middle- and low-income families. It is well-established that people who possess a college degree have a much higher lifetime earning potential than those who do not. And so, the cycle continues.

Many institutions are addressing this challenge by striving to “meet the full financial need” of any student who is admissible to their college or university. In other words, whatever portion of the tuition that a family cannot afford will be given to them in the form of financial aid. This takes a big step toward breaking the cycle of growing income inequality, but two facts remain inexorable:

  1. Few institutions have the resources to meet the complete financial need of all of their admits.
  2. Even the schools that meet the full need of those who make it into their admit pool may be failing to reach many of the lowest income high school students who have the potential to succeed at their institution.

Admissions offices rely heavily on standardized test scores and grades to determine which applicants to admit. Although these measures are very useful and have been found to be predictive of first year GPA, they do not explain 100% of the variance in college success. In addition, the criteria for admissions themselves are influenced by a family’s wealth. Students who cannot afford to take test-preparation courses or hire tutors have lower grades and test scores and are more likely to attend high schools with low college-going rates and weaker curricula—all factors that are typically considered in an admission decision.

Finally, other quantifiable factors that are often considered in the admissions process can eliminate lower-income students from the pool of potential admits. Low-income students may have less opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities, join clubs, become involved with community service, start their own business—many of the signals that those of us who have reviewed college applications are looking for as we shape incoming classes.

How can a college or university help level the playing field at the beginning of the game? Creating a holistic application review process can be a helpful first step. There is an abundance of research available today on the qualitative, (non-cognitive, non-academic) factors that predict success in college. One of the most critical factors to emerge is persistence, or “grit”. A person who has a history of overcoming obstacles and persisting through challenges—no matter what those obstacles and challenges have been—is more likely to persevere through future academic challenges.

Grit is a qualitative factor that Admissions offices can look for in an application, but they will need to be open to the many different forms it can take. A high school student who has maintained good grades while holding the same retail job for 18 months because she has to help support her family, might have the discipline needed to get through a rigorous computer science program. Most admissions officers would be thrilled to land a valedictorian, but the senior who is graduating with a strong GPA from a school where only 15% of her classmates will go on to college might demonstrate genuine strength of character.

Research has revealed other factors that have been identified, and there are probably many more that have not yet been studied. Colleges and universities can take this work up on their own by exploring which “non-academic” factors predict success at their own institutions. Before schools can deploy a holistic review process, admissions officers must explore and determine which non-academic factors predict success at their schools. Then, these factors need to be quantified to make the holistic review process systematic and most of all, consistent. Making qualitative factors quantifiable is not only possible, it is something psychometricians do all the time.

Such a commitment would improve the quality of higher education; it would be good for colleges, students, and families. Over time, it will help to narrow the ever-widening gap between the rich and poor in this country.

For more information on the latest techniques in admissions and enrollment management, please call 978-371-1775 or visit MaguireAssoc.com.