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Talking about first generation

As an alumni interviewer for Brown, I read Monday's story on 2015 admissions ("University admits record-low 8.7 percent of applicants," April 4) with a mix of awe and frustration. It is fantastic that a Brown degree is in such high demand. The 8.7 percent acceptance rate is stunning, as is the fact that 96 percent of those accepted rank in the top 10 percent of their classes. Kudos to Dean of Admission Jim Miller '73 and his staff.

The story also noted that 17 percent of those accepted are "first-generation college students," an attribute that, in the wake of legal challenges to affirmative action, has become sought-after in college admissions. If this ratio holds, it would represent a significant increase over the 14 percent of the class of 2014 deemed first-generation.

Before I go further, let me state unequivocally that I support the University's commitment to racial and socioeconomic diversity, and I applaud Miller's efforts to recruit from disadvantaged schools and regions where college enrollment is uncommon. That being said, the first-generation metric is flawed and, at the very least, in dire need of some honest re-labeling.

Under the narrow definition used by the Office of Admission, all four of an applicant's grandparents could have doctoral degrees, yet she would still be considered first-generation so long as her parents were college dropouts. When I have asked fellow alums what they think "first-generation" means, nearly all assumed it meant neither the parents nor grandparents had attended college. Some even included siblings, cousins, aunts or uncles.

What is undeniable is that the term "first-generation" connotes an extended family lineage. If Brown wishes to tout the percentage of students whose parents never graduated from college, why not simply refer to them as such? Why mislead?

Here's another problem — the University makes no concerted effort to verify claims of first-generation status, which Miller acknowledges. In a letter to the Brown Alumni Magazine last year, Miller wrote, "We cannot prove that a parent did not attend college, and I cannot envision a practical process for doing so, since it remains hard to prove a negative." I suggested to Miller that with applications now being submitted electronically, he could simply crosscheck his list of applicants' parents against a database of college graduates.

Miller has yet to respond directly to my suggestion, other than to reference an internal audit of first-generation status that found no evidence of fraud but also relied entirely on applicant-submitted data. Given other verifications routinely demanded by the admissions office, I am puzzled by the reliance on the honor system when it comes to a metric used to ensure something as important as socioeconomic diversity on campus. To be sure, most applicants would not lie about their parents' education. Most applicants would not lie about their SAT scores either, yet I assume Brown does not allow self-reporting of SAT or other test scores.

Along the same lines, when a student applies for financial aid, the University does not take the applicant's word that his or her parents cannot afford the tuition. The University requires the applicant to submit signed and dated tax returns that include parents' W-2 forms. Back when I was at Brown, a good friend was actually forced to withdraw from school temporarily, because his father refused to submit his tax returns.

If one of the University's admissions goals is to ensure socioeconomic diversity, why not use a metric like income that measures this more directly? Why rely upon one that seems downright anti-intellectual — one that may disadvantage the inner-city or rural applicant whose mom or dad may have recently earned a college degree at night school?

Miller contends there is a positive correlation between first-generation status and income and minority status. This is undoubtedly true. But the mere fact that a correlation exists is not an endorsement. As a financial writer, I can tell you that historically, there has been a positive correlation between low CEO pay and future stock returns. Nevertheless, I would never recommend a stock on the grounds that the CEO is the lowest-paid in his industry. There are too many other metrics — for example, revenue growth and price-to-earnings ratio — that give a fuller, more accurate assessment of a company's prospects.

Why do I consider first-generation status as flawed for building socioeconomic diversity as CEO pay would be for picking stocks? According to the admissions office's own audit, approximately 10 percent of the students the University labels "first-generation" do not receive financial aid. These students are supposed to be economically disadvantaged, yet it appears their parents can afford Brown's tuition, which is more than $50,000 per year. Confused? Me too.

The cynic in me wonders whether Brown's embrace of the first-generation metric has more to do with marketing or fundraising than with admissions. It's so much more compelling and heart-warming to tell people that 17 percent of your students are the first in their families to attend college — whether or not it is technically true — than it would be to announce that 17 percent hail from the bottom quartile of household income distribution. Then again, Brown would have no excuse for not verifying income — they've already got your tax returns and W-2s.


Jon Birger ‘90 is a financial journalist and contributing writer for Fortune magazine. He can be reached at jon.birger(at)


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