Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Elite Criteria and Ordinary People

This piece from The Atlantic reacting to Yale's self-proclaimed ambition to admit more "smart students from poor families" struck me as mildly interesting, in particular because it calls attention to the fact that elite definitions of "poor" are often rather far off from objectives measures thereof.
In his article Zax notes that 69 percent of this year’s freshmen are from families with annual incomes of over $120,000. However, the median U.S. household income is $52,700.
This broad view of the world’s economic reality suggests that elite universities should not be asking, “Why do we have so few low-income students?” but “How do we have so many wealthy ones?” There is no relationship between being intelligent and inheriting wealth. Therefore, the only logical explanation for the disproportionate abundance of wealthy people in elite colleges and universities is that these private institutions consistently overvalue the performance and qualifications of youth from higher income brackets. We “poor” smart students are not rare exotic fruit, which can only be discovered through adventurous colonial missions.
This is something that I occasionally run into at work, where people will start talking about "poorer consumers" and it quickly becomes clear that to marketing executives making less than $70k and shopping at Walmart puts one in the position of being so poor that it's hard to imagine how they buy consumer goods. This is a problem, in that it means that more than half the US population is outside the area you can imagine. In this Yale example, 70% of freshmen come from the top 15% of US households by income, and someone from an economic background that would be considered average (which, let us remember, means better than half) would be considered seriously poor by Yale standards.

Perhaps I'm projecting a bit, but I can imagine that some of this comes from the emphasis placed on "well rounded" students in the admissions process.
In the article, author David Zax—who graduated from Yale in 2006 and who says that he is a typically well-to-do Ivy League alumnus—is careful to clarify that it is the “high-achieving” poor student that Yale desires. Like most elite universities, Yale has a very specific view of what that means: high GPAs in “demanding” high schools and extraordinary character-defining extra-curricular activities. By the time I applied to Yale, I had been groomed as a scholarship student in majority-affluent feeder schools to succeed in conditions that guaranteed healthy GPAs. My attentive teachers in small classes delivered a curriculum that emphasized critical thinking skills, leadership capacity, and participation in mainstream institutions. Athletics and creative activities, studying in well-resourced libraries, and sessions with a seasoned well-connected college counselor were all required of me. Unsurprisingly, these nurturing environments allowed me to gain the credentials elite universities require. By society and the job market, I continue to be seen as a “high-achiever” in essence because I was never set up to fail.
Back when I was playing the college admissions game (a time getting surprisingly close to twenty years ago, so who knows how relevant that is these days) I remember being rather mystified by what it took to get into the really "good" schools. Having been homeschooled, and coming from a very economically average family and neighborhood, I had SAT scores in the 99% percentile, but no real extra curriculars to brag about other than some desultory fencing lessons at a nearby public park by way of sports and my pending Eagle Scout ranks with the boy scouts. (A procrastinator then as now, I finished all my paperwork and submitted it a couple weeks before my 18th birthday, which is the final deadline, which meant that the award itself came too late to be claimed on college admissions.)

While throughout my school life (parochial and then homeschooled) simply getting high test scores was enough to stand out, it quickly became clear that when applying to nationally recognized colleges, scores were not everything. And yet, even those scores in part came as the result of a certain kind of privilege. A perfect verbal score on the SAT came easily to me in that it mostly just required a really wide vocabulary and good reading comprehension, by my family was awash in books, book talk, and literacy.

Of course, all this would matter less in terms of perceived in equality if the elite universities were seen primarily as the territory of society's aristocrats, rather than being the residence of the "best and the brightest". In a sense, it's the meritocratic element of our aristocracy that makes certain elements of American inequality rankle more. To a great extent, top schools are gated by expectations that primarily the children of those already very well off can meet. Yet because these criteria, while based in part on privilege, are also based on a great deal of hard work and ability, it becomes much more convincing to see those who make it through elite institutions as being truly the best of society in terms of ability.


Joseph Moore said...

There's a related, if trivial, situation in sports, where for the last 30 years or so we're seeing the perhaps less athletically gifted but highly privileged children of professional athletes make it disproportionately in professional sports. Kids who grew up around professional athletes, with access to professional level facilities and coaching, praised for their mastery of athletic skills, given every opportunity - and often pushed hard - to compete have a huge advantage over the rest of us.

My experience is somewhat similar yet different in key ways than yours: almost 40 years ago, when I was in a Catholic high school in California, Stanford was the gold standard. I even applied, because, like you, I had those crazy SAT scores that suggested I should.

Well, that was an eye-opener! Even back then, it quickly became apparent, working through the process, that they expected a lot more than high SAT scores and mediocre grades, and that, had I wanted to go there, I'd have needed to start working on it starting in about 6th grade.

Unlike you, I came from a family where the library consisted of Reader Digest Condensed Books (I've read dozens of those! Even now, I'll sometimes see a movie and say - hey, I remember that plot!). Apart from that and the sports pages, nobody read much of anything unless school made them do it.

Somehow - I credit divine intervention - I heard about and got into St. John's College's Great Books program, where I met the sort of people who do small liberal arts colleges. Let's just say, as the son of a sheet metal worker and a housewife with a high school education, I didn't exactly fit in. I'd never met any lawyers or doctors (outside of a check-up) or college professors before in my life, when those folks were wildly overrepresented in the parents of my classmates. The adults I grew up around knew how to weld or lay brick, not how to write an article for trade journals or work the politics of a university or law office.

And yet, the lives of my classmates seemed completely normal to them. That you would pull out the blue blazer and a button down shirt for a meeting with dean was automatic to them; it was as foreign as a space suit to me. (True story: a good friend and college roommate once bought me a blue oxford cloth button down shirt as a present. My first one. He, of course, is the son of a doctor. There was an undercurrent of pity to this gift, I now recognize.)

Anyway, just confirming: the cultural divide, for which income is just one measure, is far broader than the feeble, self-focused efforts of elite universities will ever bridge. I would imagine that 60% or more of the country's college age kids can't even imagine what it would take to get into Harvard (besides more money that they've ever seen). College of any kind is a fantasy for many kids. Such a life is as unknown to them as the far side of the moon.

Jenny said...

"making less than $70k and shopping at Walmart puts one in the position of being so poor that it's hard to imagine how they buy consumer goods."

This is a good tidbit of information to have. As some one who makes right around the household median, I often look at consumer goods and wonder how in the world they think I or half the country can afford to buy this stuff. I know that we are in the middle and yet many seemingly everyday items are far out of reach, like for instance smartphones.

Good to know I'm not crazy! The people putting this stuff out don't think I can afford it either. And the people I see with this stuff who I know make less must be in debt up to their eyeballs, as I've long suspected.

Darwin said...

Joseph Moore,

Interesting. (Actually, I came moderately close to going to St. Johns myself, but I ended up having a really weird student visit as a result of the drug culture which had sprung up there in recent years, and so I got scared off and went to Steubenville.)

I don't know if it's reading too much Brit Lit at a formative age, but I'm always really fascinated by class dynamics. It's struck me that there were probably a lot of unseen and un-thought-of class benefits that I absorbed due to growing up in a family with two college educated parents, most of whose friends had advanced degrees, despite the fact that my dad made comparatively little money.


That's probably part of it.

It's also just that everyone seems to think they're an expert on marketing. Execs will think that thinking about how they and their friends and family shop and live is a pretty good proxy for understanding the country as a whole. I'm the guy there who's trying to point out, "You may never shop at Walmart and don't know how people at the median income live, but I've got data here showing that a lot of your customers do shop at Walmart, no matter what the one man focus group may say."

Jenny said...

"Execs will think that thinking about how they and their friends and family shop and live is a pretty good proxy for understanding the country as a whole."

I wonder if that is a uniquely American problem? Everyone thinks he's a member of the middle class.

Caroline said...

This is really good. There's also a geographical component tied to "poverty" when it comes to educational and cultural resources. The world of a student in Connecticut is simply a different place from that of a student in Mississippi. Not always in good ways, but definitely in ways that look good on a college application. We forget how big this America country really is, and how diverse the different sub-cultures are. It's un PC to say this, but children who grow up in a rural county taking a 30 minute bus ride to a crowded county school and pick crops in the summer are just not in the same playing field as the kids who go to fancy suburban high schools and attend cultural enrichment classes in the summer. (Though there's something to be said for NOT living a rat-race suburban life, I think).

Joseph Moore said...

Unfortunately, the drug and alcohol culture of St. John's was legendary even back when I went there. Pot and hard liqueur, mostly. Since everything else was surreal to me, I hardly noticed and stayed out of it. Also, I didn't visit before enrolling - I didn't know people did that.

I've long been struck by how automatic college seems to one set of people, and how just plain other is seems to another set. My family, like lots of families I suppose, straddled the divide: out of 9 kids, I've got three siblings who barely got through high school (if that), 3 who got the bachelor's degree (one on the 20-year program) and 3 who, including me, have advanced degrees, one with 3 Masters, and one with a Master's in Chemistry and a JD (mine's only an MBA, glorified VoTech, but still).

My nephews and nieces follow their parents - the ones with HS parents don't go to college, the ones with college educated parents do. I've long thought that if one used no other predictor of future economic success than the economic success of the parents, your predictions would be better than all the schooling, IQ, SAT, grades and so on put together.

Darwin said...

This was striking me at a family funeral a while back, which was the first time I'd seen many of my cousins in ten years.

In my mom's family, she and one other sibling went to college, while the other five didn't. That divide has persisted pretty clearly into the next generation. Only a couple of the cousins from non-college educated parents have gone to college, whereas all of the kids of the college educated parent did.