I started reading this Times column via a link from a friend’s FB page and started thinking, “hey, this is really good.” I scanned to the top and thought, “doh, I should’ve realized I’m reading Dave Leonhardt. Anyway, it is a really thought provoking look–largely based on an interview with Amherst College president, Anthony Marx– at how elite colleges are increasingly the domain of the richest Americans:
When we [Leonhardt and Marx] spoke recently, he mentioned a Georgetown University study of the class of 2010 at the country’s 193 most selective colleges. As entering freshmen, only 15 percent of students came from the bottom half of the income distribution. Sixty-seven percent came from the highest-earning fourth of the distribution. These statistics mean that on many campuses affluent students outnumber middle-class students.
“We claim to be part of the American dream and of a system based on merit and opportunity and talent,” Mr. Marx says. “Yet if at the top places, two-thirds of the students come from the top quartile and only 5 percent come from the bottom quartile, then we are actually part of the problem of the growing economic divide rather than part of the solution.”
That’s not the worst of it, though. Obviously, fewer poor kids have the background and skills to succeed at top colleges. The problem is, that even among those who do, they are largely shut out:
The truth is that many of the most capable low- and middle-income students attendcommunity colleges or less selective four-year colleges close to their home. Doing so makes them less likely to graduate from college at all, research has shown. Incredibly, only 44 percent of low-income high school seniors with high standardized test scores enroll in a four-year college, according to a Century Foundation report — compared with about 50 percent of high-income seniors who have average test scores.
I think that bolded line in an incredibly damning statement about our society and our visions of an upwardly mobile meritocracy. The reports authors put it best:
“The extent of wasted human capital,” wrote the report’s authors, Anthony P. Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, “is phenomenal.”
In my experience at Duke, the diversity we had was that the Black and Hispanic students from upper/middle class homes in addition to the majority white students from upper/middle class homes. I’m sure there was the rare student from the genuinely poor background, but I didn’t know about it. Marx also makes a really useful point about test scores:
This comparison understates the problem, too, because SAT scores are hardly a pure measure of merit. Well-off students often receive SAT coaching and take the test more than once, Mr. Marx notes, and top colleges reward them for doing both. Colleges also reward students for overseas travel and elaborate community service projects. “Colleges don’t recognize, in the same way, if you work at the neighborhood 7-Eleven to support your family,” he adds.
Obviously, poor, but bright and motivated kids can get an excellent education at a non-elite university, but this still speaks to something we as a society are doing wrong and the false vision of American society as a genuine meritocracy.