Third installment in our 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.

But critics contend that on the whole, elite colleges are too worried about harming their finances and rankings to match their rhetoric about wanting economic diversity with action.

“It’s not clear to me that universities are hungry for that,” said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who studies college diversity. “What happens if low-income students start calling the bluff of selective universities, and do start applying in much larger numbers? Will the doors be open?”

Kahlenberg has had a nice career regurgitating the Cathedral’s wisdom and making himself available to New York Times reporters. Unfortunately, he has been very wrong about several important items in his area of (alleged) expertise.

First, his initial claim to fame was to propose affirmative action based on class as a replacement for affirmative action based on race. Alas, he lacked the social science chops to understand that the massive number of poor, but academically successful, Asian Americans meant that, were a place like Williams to use class instead of race, its proportion of African American students would go toward zero very quickly. In fact, for virtually every African American student who enrolls at Williams then are 10 (100? 1000?) or more Asian Americans who come from poorer families but had better high school records.

Second, he edited a whole book decrying legacy admissions without realizing that, among elite schools like Williams, legacy status plays a minimal role in admissions, and that role is diminishing every year. See these posts for details. But the intuition is obvious enough:

In the 80’s, there were 500 academically accomplished students per class. Judging/guessing from what we see at reunions, the total number of children of a typical class is at least 500. But only 75 or so find spots at Williams! Do the other 425 go to Stanford? Nope. And the same harsh mathematics apply to the children of other elite schools. Since smart people have smart children, the pool of legacies that the College has to choose from is very impressive. So, it does not need to meaningfully lower standards to find 75 good ones.

Does Kahlenberg continue his stupidity here? You bet he does! Consider the quote:

What happens if low-income students start calling the bluff of selective universities, and do start applying in much larger numbers?

It all depends on which sort of low-income students we are talking about. If 10,000 poor kids with lousy SAT scores and bad high school grades were to apply to Williams, then Williams would reject them all, just as it rejects thousands of rich kids with poor scores/grades. If lots of poor students with amazing scores/grades started applying, then Williams would accept them, as would other elite colleges.

But the truth, which Kahlenberg either doesn’t know or is too slippery to admit, is that the main issue is poor students with less impressive academic credentials than the non-poor students Williams currently admits/enrolls. If Williams has to choose between poor kids with 1350 SAT scores and rich kids with 1550 (and similar differences in high school grades), then it will (should!) choose the rich kids. If it doesn’t, it won’t be an elite school for long.

No bluff calling is required.

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