Second 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.

Getting low-income students onto elite campuses is seen as a vital engine of social mobility.

Yet as Anthony P. Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, put it, “Higher education has become a powerful force for reinforcing advantage and passing it on through generations.”

People like Carnevale don’t seem to think clearly about the empirical claims that they are making. Imagine a perfect world, one without nasty institutions, like Williams, “reinforcing advantage,” a world in which every child is treated exactly the same. Is there correlation between parent and child outcomes in this world?

Of course there is! Consider basketball and height. Tall people have a huge advantage in playing basketball and height is around 70% genetic. So, even in a world in which every child has free basketball lessons from birth, success in basketball — whether measured as relative ability in 8th grade gym class or starting in the NBA — will be passed “on through generations” because of genetics. NBA players will be much more likely to come from families in which parents were in the top 10% of basketball ability because a major component of success is genetic.

In fact, the more that you equalize environment, the greater the relative importance of genes.

In a parallel fashion, the things that make you successful as a high school student — intelligence, hard work and conformity — are the same things that help you to earn a high income. And these traits have a genetic component as well. So, even in a world with perfect equality in terms of child-rearing, parents with high income (meaning, on average, hard-working, intelligent, conformist parents) will have successful students because these traits have a genetic component.

Now, it is certainly the case that parents, and institutions, have an effect beyond their genetics, but by failing to even discuss (or understand?) the genetic component of inherited success, Carnevale and others make it hard to take their claims seriously.

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