A Tale of Two CMCs

Increasing racial diversity at colleges and universities across the United States has been a topic fiercely discussed since the civil rights era in the 1960s. While there’s still a ways to go, studies show racial diversity across America’s college campuses has been increasing, slowly but surely.

Diversity, however, goes beyond just race.

Even though socioeconomic diversity is equally important—and inextricably linked—to its racial counterpart, it hasn’t been in the spotlight nearly as much as it should.

The situation is particularly dire at the nation’s elite colleges and universities. A report by The New York Times found that there was “virtually no change from the 1990s to 2012 in enrollment of students that are less well off [at selective colleges] even though there was a huge increase over that time in the number of such students going to college.”

Elite colleges carry a prestige that in many ways allows their graduates to attain powerful economic, political and social footing. This means that if elite colleges are primarily made up of society’s upper classes, whiffs of oligarchy begin to penetrate our democracy.

It is the responsibility of every elite college in the United States, then, to do everything in its power to open its doors for high-achieving, low-income students. Not only would it grant such students a good chance of escaping poverty, but it would instill a sense of respect for peoples of all income levels within its student body—respect that might have not come otherwise.

Thankfully, most of the admissions data from the Claremont Colleges shows yearly increases in admitted students that qualify to receive Federal Pell Grants—with one notable exception (see Table 1).

According to data obtained from The New York Times', Claremont McKenna College decreased its total number of enrolled first-year Pell Grant recipients from 13 percent in 2008 to 11 percent in 2013, making CMC the only Claremont College that has lowered its overall first-year socioeconomic diversity within the last five years.

To the unsuspecting eye, a two percent decrease over the course of half a decade might seem an easily dismissible statistic unworthy of attention or analysis. CMC’s track record clearly shows otherwise.

Contextualizing Diversity

In 2008, 82 international students were enrolled at CMC. By 2013, that number nearly tripled to 224, representing 17 percent of the total student body (Table 2). The vast majority of international students pay full or near-full cost of attendance, a whopping $60,010 per year.

It’s also worth noting that international students factor into CMC’s racial demographics. However, the majority of international students that are considered racial minorities in the U.S. are of Asian descent; out of the 224 international students enrolled at CMC in 2013, more than half came from China, India or Korea.

Of course, CMC diversifying its student body by admitting more international students is not inherently suspect. What makes CMC worthy of criticism are the other admission trends that have occurred in tandem.

In 2008, CMC ended its Los Angeles Posse Scholar program four years after its inception. Then, in 2009, CMC discontinued its partnership with QuestBridge after only two years due to “financial considerations.” Both programs aim to attract low-income youth from across the United States, especially those residing in urban areas.

The slashing of these programs directly relates to the overall stagnation in Pell Grant-eligible students. This is clearly shown by the fact that CMC admitted cohorts from both Posse and QuestBridge in 2007 and 2008, matching with the five-year-high of 14 percent of the student body composed by Pell Grant recipients in 2011.

There are two possibilities, then. Best-case scenario, it’s a coincidence that CMC’s international student body has increased at least two percentage points since 2010 while the percentage of low-income students stagnated. Worst-case scenario, CMC consciously chose to widen its doors for wealthy international students as it simultaneously took away streams of access for low-income students of color.

Data for the class of 2018 could point us, in some ways, toward the right answer. Unfortunately, such data hasn’t been approved by the school to be used in a public forum. But the number makes it seem as though the international student body is on an upward slope that doesn’t look to be slowing down any time soon. Pell Grant recipients, on the other hand, haven’t even reached the 15 percent benchmark that the international student body crossed in 2012.

At this point, I want to clarify that I do not wish to set our culturally rich international students against their low-income peers. The issue of extreme over-representation of the wealthy and upper-middle classes applies to domestic students as well. According to a CMC brochure available online, 40 of the incoming first-years in 2008 came from a yearly family income of $200,000 or higher, the largest subset of any income level. Out of the 392 total incoming students in 2008, 242 of them—61 percent—had family incomes of $75,000 or higher.

While there is no similar data for other incoming classes, it is not a stretch of the imagination to predict that the college's income makeup hasn't changed much since then.

A Promising Future?

It’s important to note that many of the statistics listed above were overseen by former CMC president Pamela Gann and her administration. Indeed, current president Hiram Chodosh seems especially weary of the lack of socioeconomic diversity on campus. 

The Student Imperative—CMC’s new $100 million initiative “aimed at raising financial support (both merit- and need-based), lifting economic barriers to access, and enhancing the undergraduate experience at CMC”—has the potential to solve many, if not all, of the issues raised above. Spearheaded by Chodosh himself, the Student Imperative also emphasizes personal and social responsibility on campus climate issues such as “identity, diversity, and speech.” 

Unfortunately, rhetoric doesn’t accomplish much. David Leonhardt, the lead author of the Times’ recent data set on college accessibility, wrote that while “dozens of colleges have proclaimed that recruiting a more economically diverse student body was a top priority,” many “have not matched their words with actions.” 

Those colleges that did follow up on their promises, Leonhardt observes, “changed policies and made compromises elsewhere to recruit the kind of talented poor students who have traditionally excelled in high school but not gone to top colleges.”

Ultimately, CMC is at a crossroads: Will we join Leonhardt’s list of deceptive colleges, or will we live up to our word and widen our doors to high-achieving students of low-income backgrounds, even if it means shortening the massive gates available to the upper class? 

Regardless, we cannot sell ourselves short. Admitting and enrolling more low-income students is just the beginning of a long, grueling and culturally shifting challenge.

Besides focusing on admissions, CMC needs foster a new social infrastructure which will allow non-white, non-affluent students to feel as welcome and secure as their privileged peers. This goes beyond the mantra of “personal and social responsibility” preached by the Student Imperative.

It means using some of our $600 million endowment to implement new programs strictly aimed at increasing the number of low-income students of color. One way the school could begin do this is by reinstating Posse and QuestBridge—or partnering up with similar programs—as soon as possible.

The college should also consider implementing an income-based affirmative action policy, especially since race-based affirmative action has been losing public and judicial support over the last decade.

“The happiest college in the world” must trade in its discourse of unabashed happiness for one of cold-hearted honesty. We must look at ourselves in the mirror, point out all of our institutional flaws, and debate the alternatives. Only then do we have a shot of taking that happiness beyond the realms of Green Beach and TNC. 

Carlos Ballesteros CM '16 is a sociology and history double major from Chicago, Illinois.