One of the most disturbing trends in the United States in recent decades is the lack of socioeconomic mobility. A core aspect of the American dream is a merit-based society where hard work will lead to greater economic prosperity. Yet even though Americans believe in this ideal – a 2013 Brookings Institute survey found that a higher rate of Americans agreed with the statement “people are rewarded for intelligence and skill” than any of the 27 countries surveyed – this ideal hasn’t matched the reality in recent decades. That same survey also found that income inequality was increasing and becoming permanent, sharply reducing social mobility.
America’s universities – including Emory – play a crucial role in reversing this trend. Access to a highly-ranked college dramatically increases one’s potential earnings and increases the likelihood of moving up the social latter. Yet my experience prior, during and in the two years since graduating from Emory, makes me doubt that the school is fulfilling its duty and mission to provide access to the country’s youth struggling to get out of the lower class.
My graduating class of 64 students at a high school in Seattle – about as far away from Atlanta as possible in the continental United States – sent three students to Emory. I know dozens of these wealthy, private high schools regularly send several students a year to Emory and other highly-ranked universities.
For the past two years, I’ve taught at Jonesboro High School about 20 miles south of Emory’s campus. Ninety-one percent of students are minorities, and more than 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Out of the 300-person graduating class last year, none will attend Emory – the best university in the high school’s own backyard.
It’s certainly true that a significant percentage of students at Jonesboro do not have the credentials to thrive at Emory, while this may not be true at the high school I attended and other similar prep-schools across the county. However, the top echelon of students at Jonesboro High – and other low-income high schools – could thrive at Emory. These students may not have as high SAT and ACT scores due to the lack of access to expensive test-prep programs that their peers in wealthier circles have. However, they would contribute a great deal to the diversity and richness of the community in a way that students from more privileged backgrounds cannot.
From anecdotal experience, I don’t believe Emory admits the student population that would provide the best, most enriching college experience. While Emory students are extremely accomplished in many academic and non-academic fields, a significant portion of students don’t offer as much as a more economically and racially diverse students would offer. These students wouldn’t arrive on campus principally concerned with which Greek organization to join and the social scene at Maggie’s, like is the case among a segment of Emory’s population.
High-achieving students in Atlanta area high schools should see admission to Emory – the top school in the metro area – as a realistic goal. In order for this to happen, Emory’s admissions department needs to spend more time actively recruiting in Metropolitan Atlanta schools and less time focusing on elite, wealthy schools in other regions of the county.
Those schools have great guidance counselors and students who will hear about Emory. Recruitment and information about Emory is needed at places like Jonesboro High where “counselors” have too many duties unrelated to college advising to provide adequate services to our top students.
I know Emory prides itself on recruiting students from every part of the country and the globe. However, it seems the majority of students are from schools in the nation’s highest-income neighborhoods, and most international students from the same types of English-speaking schools where admission to an American college is the goal. While this might look diverse on paper, the reality didn’t always feel that way during my time at Emory.
Recruiting at low-income Atlanta area schools might not seem like the most logical approach for Emory’s admissions department. These students would require significant financial aid and don’t help the school boast its national and international appeal. In a lot of ways, recruiting students from abroad who can afford to pay full-freight might seem like a better approach.
But this approach is contributing to both the lack of social mobility in the country as a whole and the lack of real diversity at Emory that affects students’ college experience.
Alex Dawson is an alumnus of Emory University from Seattle, Wash.