Friday, June 3, 2011

But Bootstraps!

From The New York Times, this one hits close to home for me. In an article entitled "Top Colleges, Largely For the Elite," David Leonhart writes:

"Does more economic diversity [in elite universities] necessarily mean lower admissions standards?

No, it does not.

The truth is that many of the most capable low- and middle-income students attend community 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....

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.

Several years ago, William Bowen, a former president of Princeton, and two other researchers found that top colleges gave no admissions advantage to low-income students, despite claims to the contrary. Children of alumni received an advantage. Minorities (except Asians) and athletes received an even bigger advantage. But all else equal, a low-income applicant was no more likely to get in than a high-income applicant with the same SAT score. It’s pretty hard to call that meritocracy."

This is one reason why, in general, I tend not to be impressed by those with Ivy League pedigrees. Even though the US has a running narrative that there's something Really Special about people who graduate from the elite universities, the graduates of these schools are remarkably uniform with respect to the economic and class privileges with which they grew up.

As a high school junior in a rural working class town many years ago, I scored in the 99th percentile on the ACT while studying on my own, during my lunch breaks at Fast Food Restaurant. I applied to one elite university and got in, but even with a financial aid package couldn't afford the out-of-pocket costs to attend. Instead, like many of my classmates, I opted for a community college. That's just what people did. Going somewhere "better" wasn't an expectation for most of us. After two years, I then transfered to Pretentious University (PU) with an academic scholarship.

I can't say I fit in very well.

My introduction to PU was overhearing a fellow student say, "I don't understand why people's parents don't just pay the full four years of tuition at once, since it ends up being cheaper that way." One 20-year-old had a sports car with the license plate "CEO 2 B." Another student was dating the offspring of Famous Politician. Because doesn't everyone just hang out in those circles?

Yes, I was surrounded by rich kids who were convinced that their attendance at PU proved that they were the nation's Best and Brightest, the creme de la creme, entitled and blissfully unaware of the fact that for every one of them, there were dozens of other equally bright (or brighter) students at state universities, community colleges, or in the working world who didn't want to incur student loan debt, didn't have parents who could pay their six-figure tuitions, and/or didn't have much guidance or coaching on the whole Going To College Process.

Another interesting point from the Times article that I wanted to delve into a little more was the "Minorities (except Asians) and athletes receive an even bigger advantage" than low-income students as it seems to sloppily assume that minorities and low-income students are two separate (rather than overlapping) categories. I went to the Century Foundation report (PDF) cited in the article for a closer look:

"Many believe that race no longer matters, and that socioeconomic disadvantages, otherwise known as class, have become the universal barrier to equal opportunity. Our analysis of the NELS does not support the notion that we could use income or other socioeconomic characteristics as a substitute for race. Race and ethnicity have effects all their own, and we find that socioeconomic status is no substitute for race or ethnicity in selective college admissions."

That is, class differences don't "explain away" race-based differences in educational attainment. The report found that the "educational disadvantages of low socioeconomic status are more onerous for minorities, especially African-Americans."

Interestingly, gender wasn't examined with respect to educational differences.

1 comment:

Sasha CA said...

This post brings back some painful memories. I count my decision to attend an elite law school among the worst mistakes I ever made (and that's really sayin' something). Talk about feeling totally and completely out of place somewhere!

I had dropped out of high school and left home when I was 16, but eventually managed to claw my way into an el cheapo no-name college coming from a background of poverty, abuse, homelessness, drug addiction, and prostitution. I covered my tuition and living expenses doing sex work and some modeling, but ended up graduating with a 3.98 GPA. Then I kicked ass on the LSAT and my dream of becoming a lawyer and working for social justice almost seemed within reach.

I could have gone to a second-tier law school that was part of the University of CA system, but no, when I got into a prestigious top-tier school on the East Coast, THAT was where I had to go. For pretty much the reasons you outline: All my life I'd been told that there's something Really Special about people who graduate from the elite universities. I didn't quite know how I was going to pay for it, but how could I pass up this amazing opportunity when people like me so rarely get the chance to attend such a school?

Unfortunately my law school experience turned out to be an absolute disaster. To say that I felt completely alienated from the mega-privileged, uber-entitled students there would be an understatement. Literally from day one, I felt like I had made a huge mistake, that someone with my background simply didn't belong there. Eventually I sunk into a deep depression (I'm bipolar) and had to take a leave of absence. Then I had to take care of my mom who was experiencing her own health crisis, and by the time I was able to resume my studies, I was told that I no longer qualified for the financial aid package I had been counting on. Bye-bye law school.