New Orleans A quote from a barista about higher education caught my eye. She was 21 years old and originally from the Philippines. She had graduated from a competitive magnet high school and taken some courses at a community college, but opted to go to work rather than college. Diversity and affirmative action were just buzzwords to her. She stated plainly, “All these people who talked about race and class had spent so much money to go to school. How can you talk about making things more equitable, but you’re spending $30,000 a year on tuition?” It’s hard to argue with her point.
I spent a few years after high school back and forth at Williams College. Not one of the super elite, but certainly up there as part of what they called the “little Ivy” as opposed to the full-tilt Ivy League and its eight schools. Tuition was about $5000 a year. I had a scholarship. They also let me work at school for a piece of it. Working summers in the oil fields offshore in Louisiana and in the red dirt of Oklahoma paid another piece of it. That’s not to say it was cheap. In 2023 dollars, that five grand would be $47,000. All-in maybe it added up to $8000 then. Checking the internet, the Williams package is now ten times that at over $80,000. I saved my folks a boatload by dropping out early and often. My brother went to Yale all four years at about the same time for about the same price, but with more scholarship money and summer jobs offshore, at a shipyard, and driving a mail truck for the Postal Service.
Turns out we were lucky, even if we were told it was because we were smarter than the average bear. We were in the early wave of testing in a fake meritocracy when diversity included being from the South and coming from public high schools.
A new study by a bunch of Harvard economists using anonymous data from these same kinds of fancy schools paints an even bleaker picture of rich privilege and poor rejection.
For applicants with the same SAT or ACT score, children from families in the top 1 percent were 34 percent more likely to be admitted than the average applicant, and those from the top 0.1 percent were more than twice as likely to get in…. Colleges gave preference to the children of alumni and to recruited athletes, and gave children from private schools higher nonacademic ratings…. In effect, the study shows, these policies amounted to affirmative action for the children of the 1 percent, whose parents earn more than $611,000 a year.
Will this retire the old bootstraps arguments of the ideological conservatives about the path to progress in America? Probably not. There’s nothing really new in any of these conclusions that most close observers didn’t know already. The importance of this study is simply that it adds irrefutable numbers to what some knew and everyone suspected.
Will the evidence that there is a de facto affirmative action program for the rich change anything about affirmative action for other groups? No, that’s unlikely as well. Remember we’re talking about 1% of the higher education student population in these schools, and we’re not talking about action for all, but greased roads to join the elite. Weighing the privileges of the elite and how people get there begs the question that this kind of elitism is anti-democratic and directly confronts the American dream and ideals. It can’t just be a golden get ahead ticket, when…
Less than 1 percent of American college students attend the 12 elite colleges. But the group plays an outsize role in American society: 12 percent of Fortune 500 chief executives and a quarter of U.S. senators attended. So did 13 percent of the top 0.1 percent of earners. The focus on these colleges is warranted, the researchers say, because they provide paths to power and influence — and diversifying who attends has the potential to change who makes decisions in America.
This is a huge problem, and it’s only be addressed at the margins. Equity in education and opportunity is a bedtime story, not a reality, and it matters. MIT is an outlier in a more open, less financed infused process. As their admissions guy says,
“I think the most important thing here is talent is distributed equally but opportunity is not, and our admissions process is designed to account for the different opportunities students have based on their income. It’s really incumbent upon our process to tease out the difference between talent and privilege.”