Access and "access"

Colleges and universities, as well as the College Board, like to boast about how they’ve widened access to college with their recruitment and testing policies. They say that because they reach out to more students (especially those from lower-income and minority backgrounds) those students are able to attend college in greater numbers. Access is the big buzz word now, with the number of minority students growing and the ranks of the middle class struggling more and more to find ways to pay for college.

But although providing more generous financial aid packages and paying more attention to non-mainstream students are fine, what really needs to be done to improve access is to actually provide it, in other words, to open the gates wider and let more students in. Just increasing the largesse you give to the under ten percent of applicants you accept doesn’t improve access, it simply makes life easier for those who managed to squeeze through the entrance. Having more Hispanic students in the pool doesn’t mean you’ve provided them greater access, just that you’re allowing them to be part of the crowd. Real access means, you’re going to let them in in greater numbers.
Several years ago, when Lawrence Summers was still president of Harvard, he spoke at a College Board conference about the need for places like Harvard to provide greater access to non-majority students. After his talk he took questions, and I asked, “Who are you NOT going to take so Harvard can let more of those students in?” (Clearly, if you only have a limited number of spaces, an group that gains will do so at the expense of others.) He replied, “This is why I hate Q & A!” And of course he had no way to answer, because he would have had to talk about possibly accepting fewer athletes, or legacies, or geniuses. 
There are signs that the gates might be opening slightly, though. Stanford recently revealed it was thinking about increasing the size of its freshman class. Other colleges have floated the idea as well (I should say “well-known” colleges; the ones who always have the masses mobbed outside the gates) and this is all to the good. Even though the actual number overall is minute, the discussion is a good one if it centers around how these top of the pole colleges (as in being on top of the totem, or prestige, pole) can provide true access, i.e., entry, to their campuses for non-mainstream students. The idea should not be just to reshuffle the positions among the already-privileged but how to make room for deserving students with fewer advantages. I look forward to the debate.