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If parents want diverse colleges for their kids, should they put them on plane to coast or MARTA to downtown?

High school seniors across Georgia are spending this spring break cramming in last-minute visits to colleges to decide which they’ll attend next year.

In talking to parents considering loans to send their teens to pricey out-of-state colleges, I hear a similar refrain: “I want to get my children out of Georgia to meet people different from them in a different part of the country.”

I understand the urge to see other areas of America, although a $65,000-a-year college bill seems an uneconomical way for children to experience the mountainous beauty of Boulder or the cultural bounty of Boston. It would be simpler and cheaper to hand 18-year-olds an Amtrak pass and an Airbnb account for the summer.

What I find unconvincing is the argument teens will find more diversity on these campuses.

Between my older two children and my twin high school seniors, I’ve visited a dozen or more elite U.S. campuses where we met smart, interesting students representing all races and creeds. In touring colleges this year with my twins, we encountered high school students from the west coast, Puerto Rico and Alaska and talked to families from Turkey and South Africa.

What struck me was not how different these applicants were, but how similar. And that’s because colleges define diversity as race and ethnicity rather than socioeconomics and class.

Whether black or white, U.S. educated or foreign, the students at these high-end universities have well-educated and well-heeled parents. While waiting for a tour of a prestigious math and science college, I talked to a young woman from southern California who was captain of her high school tennis and academic teams and planned to major in neuroscience or biochemistry. Along with the same extracurriculars, she and my son were taking identical International Baccalaureate classes. She was essentially my son with a year-round tan and a butterfly tattoo.

Don’t misunderstand me. There are compelling reasons for Georgia students to attend a top-tier private college in Massachusetts or California. Classes are smaller. More personalized attention is available. The alumni networks are far-reaching. (And if parents can afford it or are willing to accept the debt, there’s nothing wrong with paying for college in Colorado because a teen loves to ski.)

But the notion students will be exposed to greater diversity at such schools isn’t borne out by the data. These campuses don’t boast a wide swath of American society. Yes, there are black and brown kids, but their parents are also lawyers, IT consultants and bankers. That’s because the requirements to win admission to select colleges favor students from upscale communities with powerhouse high schools and parents able to underwrite science camps, SAT tutoring and Duke TIP programs.

Despite efforts to diversify, America’s premier colleges still over-serve the rich. Culling information on 30 million college students using publicly available information on student earnings and parent incomes, Stanford economist Raj Chetty and a team of researchers found more than half of Harvard students came from the richest 10 percent of U.S. households.

According to their recent findings, “…children from families in the top 1 percent are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy-Plus college compared to the children from families in the bottom 20 percent. More broadly, looking across all colleges, the degree of income segregation is comparable to income segregation across neighborhoods in the average American city. These findings challenge the perception that colleges foster interaction between children from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.”

A year earlier, the report, “True Merit: Ensuring Our Brightest Students Have Access to Our Best Colleges and Universities,” noted 72 percent of students in the most competitive institutions of higher education — schools that admit less than a third of applicants — are from the wealthiest 25 percent of the U.S. population. Only 3 percent come from the 25 percent of families with the lowest incomes.

Parents who really believe their kids ought to be in a learning environment rich in diversity don’t need to put them on a plane to the coast; they can put them on MARTA to Georgia State University, which has both deepening diversity and an increasing graduation rate.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.