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 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.
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.
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.