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The key to a more egalitarian society is for everyone to go to elite colleges



Now nobody actually comes right out and says this, for the obvious reason that it sounds pretty idiotic when you say it out loud. But a lot of people sort of believe it anyway:

Higher education, once seen as the nation’s great leveler, has become a guardian of class division and privilege in America. At the country’s most selective schools, three percent of students come from families in the bottom economic quartile, while the top economic quartile supplies 72 percent. A high-achieving poor student is only one-third as likely to go to a competitive school as her wealthier counterpart.

If you’re actually interested in attacking class distinctions, as opposed to looking for tips on exactly what you have to do to get Cameron and Abigail into the most selective preschool in the area, you will notice that there’s something rather disturbing about the math in this paragraph. To wit: a “rich” kid (broadly defined) is twenty-four times more likely to go to a selective college than a “poor” kid (broadly defined.)

Is this because selective colleges are discriminating against poor kids? Well obviously they are, in the sense that their selection criteria result in schools with essentially no poor kids (again, “poor” here is a term of art, meaning lower middle or working class, as well as actually poor). What to do?

It doesn’t seem as if closing this gap should be so difficult. Some 30,000 low-income high school seniors in America each year are top students but don’t go to selective schools, or to college at all. Catharine Bond Hill, a prominent economist who studies equity in higher education, found that the share of low-income students at highly selective colleges could rise by 30 to 60 percent with no decrease in academic quality.


About 3.3 million people graduate from high school in the USA every year. 30,000 is less than one percent of that total. So, based on current entrance criteria, the hypothetical creation of a perfectly egalitarian system of admissions, in which SES had no effect whatsoever on an applicant’s chances of admission to a selective college, would result in an increase of what is essentially a statistical handful of “poor” (sic) kids getting into such schools. (If currently 3% of students at selective colleges are “poor,” a 30% to 60% increase in this figure would result in between 3.9% and 4.8% of all students at those colleges falling into this economically ecumenical category).

Also, too:

Getting a bachelor’s degree is the best way to escape poverty.

Wait, are we talking about selective colleges, or just college? Apparently the former:

Talented students should go to the best college they can — and not just for the career advantages later. A student who could get into a top school is nearly twice as likely to graduate there than if she goes to a noncompetitive school. The top colleges are the only ones where students of all income levels graduate at the same rates. The reason is money: Selective colleges are richer. They can afford to provide specialized counseling and lots of financial aid. And running out of money is the most common reason people drop out.

Again, nobody ever says “let’s make society more equal by sending more people to selective colleges” because, you know, math: The overwhelming majority of Americans (conservatively, 95%) can’t go to selective colleges, BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT IT MEANS FOR A COLLEGE TO BE SELECTIVE.

Indeed a large majority of Americans won’t graduate from college, period — one third of adults have college degrees, up from 5% in 1950 — because among other things college functions as a signaling mechanism and a purveyor of positional goods (i.e., degrees) and as college degrees become more common the signal becomes fuzzier and the goods become less valuable (by definition).

In sum if your egalitarian social theory is that the way to attack social inequality is to send more poor kids to Vassar — or indeed any college — you need a better theory. But that theory is what passes for social criticism on much of what passes for the liberal left in contemporary America.

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