Mon 15 Sep 2014
First installment in a two week discussion of the recent New York Times article “Generation Later, Poor Are Still Rare at Elite Colleges” by Richard Perez-Pena. Interested readers should check out our collection of posts about socio-economic issues related to admissions, from which I have plagiarized extensively.
Why two weeks? Because my little bother, Stephen Field ’37, thinks this is a topic worth discussing in depth!
As the shaded quadrangles of the nation’s elite campuses stir to life for the start of the academic year, they remain bastions of privilege. Amid promises to admit more poor students, top colleges educate roughly the same percentage of them as they did a generation ago. This is despite the fact that there are many high school seniors from low-income homes with top grades and scores: twice the percentage in the general population as at elite colleges.
First, always begin by asking “What is the New York Times choosing not to write about?” In this context, the answer is: All the other metrics that 18 year-olds (and their families) differ on but which colleges, and the New York Times, don’t care about. For example, I would bet that high school students with parents that served in the military or scored about average on their SATs or currently attend Baptists congregations or are divorced are dramatically less likely than other students to apply to, be accepted by, or attend elite colleges. Does the Cathedral care? No. The Cathedral — elite academia and the prestige press — cares about race and money and gender, and maybe a few other things. Being the son of a divorced Baptist veteran of average intelligence counts for nothing, no matter how few of you there are at Williams.
Second, read the whole article. Note how constricted the range of views are: running from the left to the far left. No one who thinks, as I do — that there is nothing surprising in the under-representation of poor students, that there is little that could plausibly be done about it and that attempts to do anything are just as likely to hurt as to help — is interviewed. Does Perez-Pena know that we are out here? Does he care? Or does he view his job as weaving a cushy cocoon of ignorance for Times readers? You don’t have to agree with, say, Charles Murray or Bryan Caplan, to think that a news article ought to mention that they exist.
Ten to 15 years ago, when some elite colleges got more serious about economic diversity, there was a view that increasing financial aid could turn the dial, but “I think we were a little naïve,” said Morton O. Schapiro, president of Northwestern University, a former president of Williams College and, like Dr. Hill at Vassar, an economist specializing in the economics of higher education.
Cost remains a barrier, but so does perception, he said, adding, “It’s a psychology and sociology thing, as well as a pricing thing.”
Who is the “we” you speak of Morty? I wasn’t naive. Here is what I was writing 8 years ago:
People who see tilts and other injustices in elite admissions have a highly naive view of the possibilities once a student hits 17. These modern day Marxists have a (stupid) a priori belief that the abilities which lead to academic success at Amherst are uniformly distributed across the population. Alas, these abilities — high IQ, a love of learning, disciplined work habits — are very non-uniformly distributed. The children of people in the top half of the income distribution are much more likely to have these abilities than the children of people in the bottom half. This effect is magnified in the top and bottom income deciles.
Smart people have smart children because intelligence like height is largely inherited. People who love learning have children who love learning because they teach them to do the same, both directly and via example. You can bet that children who are read to by their parents each day are much more likely to end up at Amherst than children who are not so fortunate. Hard-working people have hard-working children because these parents make their children work hard, thereby teaching them the value of hard work, of ambition and striving.
Now, it turns out that high IQ, a love of learning and hard work — for shorthand, let’s call these attributes “merit” — are also correlated with wealth. Or, rather, it is unlikely that someone blessed with these three attributes will end up in the bottom 25% of the income distribution.
But people like Marx seem blind to this reality. They really want to believe that there are thousands of undiscovered gems lying in the bottom income quartile, just waiting for open-minded souls (like Marx) to discover them and, Professor Higgins-like, transform them into polished stones.
Tony Marx was the president of Amherst at the time. He, and other naifs like Morty and Cappy Hill ’76, thought that they could meaningfully increase the percentage of poor students at places like Williams without meaningfully decreasing the quality of the student body. Alas, you can’t.
It isn’t a “psychology and sociology thing”, much less a “pricing thing.” It is a reality thing.
If you are upset that I haven’t provided enough evidence for these claims, have no worries! I have nine more days of posts all queued up . . .
In case it disappears from the web, the entire article is below the break.