Michael S. McPherson and Morton Owen Schapiro (henceforth, MM) provide an excellent introduction to the topic of wealth and elite higher education in America. Their introductory chapter, like the book which serves as the backbone for our Winter Study seminar, is a fair and balanced account of the research exploring why poor students are underrepresented at elite colleges and universities. MM, as befits their status as leading scholars, offer the key background and references to this topic.

Yet, MM suffer from a bind spot, a failure to take the most obvious explanation for this underrepresentation seriously. Recall the primary puzzle (at least at schools like Williams): If 20% of all 18 year-olds come, by definition, from families in the bottom 20% of the income distribution, why do such students make up a much smaller percentage (5% or less) of the students at Williams?

There are many different answers to this question, and the truth undoubtedly involves some combination. MM provide a useful overview of almost all the important reasons. But, in the midst of this balanced approach, they write:

For reasons most people could easily name, students from impoverished backgrounds are less well educated and less well prepared for college than are those from more favored backgrounds. There is no reason to believe that there is anything inherently wrong with these kids — this is not a matter of genetics. Rather, the simple fact is that they have grown up and been educated in circumstances that are much less favorable than those facing other Americans. These important features of American education are part of the background against which the policies and practices of a given college or university are set.

It is simply a falsehood that genetics plays no role in who does and who does not end up at Williams. No one afflicted with Down’s Syndrome (or with any of a host of similar genetic ailments) attends a place like Williams. Genes matter.

MM will retort that a) their argument only applies to the 98% of the population without such genetic problems and/or b) there is no reason to believe that the incidence of genetic problems is any greater in families in the bottom 20% of the income distribution relative to richer families.

But once we head down the rabbit hole of intelligence and genetics and wealth, MM will be forced to confront an entire literature which they would rather just ignore.

Although the IQ page at Wikipedia provides good coverage, we can start with Williams Professor Saul Kassin’s claim that:

Intelligence is the capacity to learn from experience and adapt successfully to one’s environment.

Group aptitude tests include the SAT and the ACT.

General intelligence is a broad factor underlying all mental abilities and evidence from studies of infants and adults support this concept.

Studies of twins and other relatives show a heredity influence on intelligence.

In other words, people who do well on the SAT tend to have children who do well on the SAT. There is no doubt that a large portion of this correlation is due to nurture. Parents who grow up surrounded by books tend to surround their children with books, and this can’t but help one’s SAT score. But, among serious scholars like Kassin, there is just no disputing that intelligence, like height, is partly genetic.

Those looking for background can try this 1994 Wall Street Journal op-ed “Mainstream Science on Intelligence” (pdf or html) as well as “Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns” (pdf or html), the Task Force Report from the American Psychological Association on which it was based. The science has only gotten more certain in the last decade. Try Intelligence: A Very Short Introduction.

For now, I want to leave aside any consideration of race. (Those curious might start here.) Take 100 Caucasian children from Denmark or African children from Zimbabwe or Chinese children from Shanghai and you will find the same thing. On average, smart parents (of any race) have smart children just as tall parents, on average, have tall children. There are, as always, plenty of exceptions. And environment plays just as important a role in height as it does in IQ. Yet the main results are clear.

It would be one thing if MM took account of this literature, if they reported the results of scholars like Kassin, if they confronted this evidence and then argued that the heritability of IQ was irrelevant to their analysis. But MM do none of those things. They act as if the entire field of psychometrics does not exist, as if they can sweep 100 years of research under the rug. Unfortunately, they (and we) must confront the world as it is and not as we would wish it to be.

Imagine that, instead of worrying why the children of poor parents are underrepresented at elite colleges, MM were concerned that the children of short parents were underrepresented on college basketball teams. (I don’t have data on this, but I find it hard to believe that 20% of college basketball players have parents in the bottom 20% of the height distribution.) One can easily image all the non-genetic paths which might contribute this result. Short parents played less basketball growing up, so they do not expose their children to as much basketball as tall parents do. Tall parents are more likely to want to coach youth teams and tend to favor players who come from families “like” theirs. And so on.

But only a fool would claim that “There is no reason to believe that there is anything inherently wrong with these kids — this is not a matter of genetics.” Everyone will agree that height is partly genetic and that height correlates with success in basketball.

Once we establish these basic facts, we can argue about the size of the effect. Even if it is true that genes matter, they may not matter much. Yet we must get down and dirty with the literature in order to have that discussion. Instead, MM prefer to pretend that genes don’t matter — that genes can’t matter.

Once we start taking genes seriously, then the explanation which MM ignore becomes all too obvious. Two things are true of smart people relative to not-so-smart people. Smart people make more money and have smarter children. (Tall people play better basketball and have taller children.) It is, therefore, no surprise that children from families in the highest 20% of the income distribution are overrepresented at Williams. (Children from families in the top 20% of the height distribution are overrepresented in collegiate basketball.)

If you haven’t already, you should read this paper. It is a excellent introduction to an important body of research. Yet McPherson and Schapiro, like almost all the authors who work in this area, not only ignore the impact of genetics, they demand that the rest of us do so as well. They assume genetic egalitarianism, i.e., that genes have no significant influence on life outcomes like admission to elite colleges, that, for all practical purposes, one persons genes are the same as another’s.

How much, if at all, genetics explain the overrepresentation of students from wealthy families — indeed, how much their real “wealth” is a matter of genes rather than dollars — is an empirical question. Let the data decide.

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