How to Make Elite Colleges Less Elitist

Published October 13, 2017

The facts are pretty damning: The Ivy League and other selective schools are bastions of privileged students.

According to a study by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, colleges are “highly stratified by socioeconomic class, with 72 percent of students in the nation’s most competitive institutions coming from families in the wealthiest quartile.”

Similarly, a study for the Internal Revenue Service found “children whose parents are in the top 1% of the income distribution are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League college than those whose parents are in the bottom income quintile.”

In September, the influential online magazine Politico blamed U.S. News and World Report’s college rankings for perpetuating such elitism. The widely watched listings favor schools whose incoming freshmen have high SAT scores, which tend to correlate with income. And U.S. News gives high marks to schools with low acceptance rates—top-rated Princeton accepted only 7 percent of its applicants in 2016.

Then there is the simple fact that costs are at stratospheric levels. Attending Williams College, U.S. News’ highest-ranked liberal arts school, costs $66,240 per year. Such figures are intimidating to any applicant, even when schools promise they will provide enough aid to make education affordable.

The top colleges undeniably attract and welcome the rich, but before we batter down the doors of the schools with federal regulations to provide greater access, we should recognize that the impetus for some of these attacks is left-wing social engineering.

For example, Richard Kahlenberg, coauthor of the Cooke study, does not simply seek high-achieving students with low incomes; he and his colleagues want the admissions process to reward disadvantaged students for their “distance traveled.”

The Cooke study not only recommends giving preference to students whose family income is low, but also to students whose parents have low-status occupations and low levels of education. It approves of techniques like the UCLA law school’s “class-based affirmative action program,” which considers “parental education, income, and net worth,” as well as “the applicant’s neighborhood (percentage of families headed by single-parent households, proportion of families on public assistance and percentage who had not graduated from high school).”

Such practices are designed, in part, to replace affirmative action, the long-standing admission policies that give special preferences on the basis of race.

Affirmative action is crumbling. Why? First, it discriminates on the basis of race, which under most circumstances is unconstitutional. Second, it favors less-qualified applicants, who squeeze out highly accomplished applicants with racial backgrounds considered to be “advantaged,” such as Asian Americans, even when an applicant does not come from a wealthy family. Third, minority students, who, like other students, might be exceptionally successful at ordinary schools, can falter at more rigorous ones. They are “mismatched.” For such reasons, courts restrict the use of race-based admissions, although the Supreme Court has endorsed their limited use to spur student diversity.

With racial preferences under attack, the shift to socioeconomic preferences has begun.

Sadly, there is no reason to believe that such programs will bring major positive changes. For one thing, the policies can be easily “gamed”—deliberately living in a bad neighborhood could add points toward admission.

We need to step back and consider the larger picture: The “top” schools get the best students because getting into a highly ranked college has become a mania of the middle class, as Andrew Ferguson described in his book “Crazy U.”

Furthermore, this middle- and upper-class competition illustrates a phenomenon recorded by Charles Murray in his 2012 book,”Coming Apart,” a study of the growing cultural divide between white people of different classes.  He found a growing split between people in well-educated, high-earning communities (which he labeled “Belmont”) and people in poorer communities (which he labeled “Fishtown”).

The well-off residents of Belmont instill in their children disciplined behavior that enables them to learn effectively and make progress toward career goals. The resulting habits make their children prime candidates for selective schools. Meanwhile, the residents of Fishtown are routinely experiencing socially harmful behaviors—such as dropping out of high school and having children without being married—and lacking discipline from either strict parents or demanding jobs. Good students in Fishtown are lucky to enter any college.

Yes, there are deserving students who try hard in Fishtown, and those students might benefit from socioeconomic preferences. But tailoring admissions standards to bring them into elite colleges is not the way to go.

Instead, colleges (with support from private donors) could increase access simply by expanding their recruitment visits. As Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery pointed out in the 2013 Brookings study that sparked many of the concerns about high-achieving, low-income students, one of the biggest problems is finding the students in the first place. They are scattered in out-of-the-way schools, where no college bothers to send a recruiter and no guidance counselor knows how to help them.

A little more recruitment effort, not social engineering, will bring in students who are being left out of selective colleges.

[Originally Published at RealClearEducation]