IT STILL PAYS TO BE RICH

Rich kids have always had an easier route to college. But here's the news: the enrollment gap between the haves and the have-nots is getting worse, and leaders at the elite schools are taking notice. "We're losing one of every four really smart low-income kids," says Williams College president Morton Owen Schapiro, who has studied this issue for more than a decade.

In 10 years, average college costs have stayed a fairly constant 6 percent of wealthy-family income, and climbed from 17 percent to 19 percent of middle-class income. But those same costs have jumped from 64 percent to 71 percent of family income at the lower socioeconomic levels, according to the College Board. "Our great colleges and universities... have hit a wall of blocked opportunity," said Anthony Marx, president of Amherst, at his school's 2004 commencement. "Those in the wealthiest quartile are six times more likely to earn a bachelor's degree than those in the poorest fourth."

Some schools are trying to reach out, motivated by a need to focus less on race and more on socioeconomic status as a means of achieving diversity. Harvard has announced it will not require any parental contribution for families earning less than $40,000 a year. It's also looking for poor but talented students. "We've spent a great deal of time talking to pastors, community activists, community colleges, Hispanic radio stations and more," says financial-aid director Sally Donahue.

But the Harvards and Princetons of the world can afford to pay for impoverished students who show promise. The pressures are greater at less selective institutions--just as they are on younger students. Students from poor families have more crowded elementary-school classrooms and fewer books at home. They get less information about the application process. They also can't risk applying Early Decision to their favorite schools, even though that could boost their odds. That's because it eliminates their chance to compare aid offers from other colleges. Moreover, an increasing number of schools, such as Carleton College and Washington University in St. Louis, factor a student's ability to pay into the admissions process. Schools claim that with limited budgets, they have to make sure they bring in enough full-fare students to subsidize the aid they pay out. Not all schools that do this admit it.

Some employ enrollment-management programs that dole out aid strategi-cally. They claim need-blind admissions policies, but offer aid packages aimed at attract-ing the best students for the least amount of money. The resulting gap between family need and the aid offered drives many poorer students away from private schools altogether.

It all results in pushing the neediest applicants down further. They rarely have access to the prep schools and SAT coaches that help with the Ivies; the non-Ivy privates are putting more money into merit aid and "gapping" everybody else; the publics are raising prices and running out of cash. "There's evidence that some fairly talented low-income kids are being squeezed out of four-year education into two-year colleges," says Schapiro.

Measuring the problem is easier than fixing it, though moves like Harvard's may start trickling through the system, particularly as the economy improves. Other efforts, such as transfer programs from community colleges, should help, too. But the wheels of academia grind slowly. And the next freshman class will, for the most part, be as rich as ever.

IT STILL PAYS TO BE RICH | News