Higher education, the reproduction of privilege, and philanthropy

Thomas Edsall, correspondent for The New Republic and online columnist for the New York Times as well as Joseph Pulitzer II and Edith Pulitzer Moore Professor of Journalism at Columbia University, recently published a column in the New York Times on “the reproduction of privilege” through higher education. Edsall wrote:

Instead of serving as a springboard to social mobility as it did for the first decades after World War II, college education today is reinforcing class stratification, with a huge majority of the 24 percent of Americans aged 25 to 29 currently holding a bachelor’s degree coming from families with earnings above the median income.

Seventy-four percent of those now attending colleges that are classified as “most competitive,” a group that includes schools like Harvard, Emory, Stanford and Notre Dame, come from families with earnings in the top income quartile, while only three percent come from families in the bottom quartile.

Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce and co-author of “How Increasing College Access Is Increasing Inequality, and What to Do about It,” puts it succinctly: “The education system is an increasingly powerful mechanism for the intergenerational reproduction of privilege.”

That’s quite an indictment of higher education! Professor Carnevale’s description of the education system as a mechanism that cranks out an ever-more rigid class structure carries the suggestion that it has been designed that way, as though elites are determined to squash the American dream.

Edsall addresses the important problem of increasing class rigidity in America by connecting that problem to higher education. Americans have tolerated, even embraced, a much higher degree of socioeconomic inequality than other Western countries on the grounds that class mobility is also greater here. Everyone, no matter how humble his beginnings, may pursue the American dream. But what happens when class mobility lessens and the American dream is no longer open to some? If there are fewer chances to climb the socioeconomic ladder, will poorer Americans justly demand a flatter social landscape?

While the problem Edsall raises is very important, his overall argument is questionable. We might begin by noting that the dominant liberal ethos on college campuses should assure us that college faculty and administrators do not want to contribute to the reproduction of an American plutocracy. College admissions officers are glad to approve admission of promising students of lower socioeconomic status -- indeed, they positively welcome the chance to make their student bodies more diverse in this way.

Edsall is undeniably correct that selective colleges and universities do play a role in replicating socioeconomic hierarchy. However, I believe, based on my experience as a college faculty member at two selective colleges, that selective colleges don’t graduate more students from lower socioeconomic classes in part because of the lack -- indeed, perhaps the increasing lack -- of college readiness of many from poorer backgrounds.

By college readiness, I don’t mean smarts, which are equally distributed among the children of all classes. I mean the other aspects of college readiness: the habits of promptness, attention to detail, and discipline to work through challenging readings and assignments, as well as basic knowledge of modern science, social studies, and current events. Students who come from higher socioeconomic backgrounds generally take these skills for granted, whereas students from less-advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds -- raised more often by single mothers who had less time to coach them through homework and take them to the library, or in homes where reading and the discipline to stick with hard assignments were less frequently modeled -- more often lack these skills.

I recall many conversations in my campus office with able, even gifted, students who came from less-advantaged backgrounds or who were first-generation college students. They talked about being bewildered by their first semesters at college, and they were sometimes embarrassed that they had trouble transiting from high school to college while students from wealthier homes and whose parents had both graduated from college made the transition with apparent ease. Their backgrounds really had left these students, in spite of their academic talents, less ready for college. Colleges know that, which is why many -- including one where I taught, The College of William & Mary -- actively identify first-generation college-goers and others with less-advantaged backgrounds in order provide these students with programs to smooth the transition to college life.

The lack of readiness goes a long way to explaining why poorer, gifted students graduate from college less frequently than wealthy, gifted students. Edsall noted:

 There is a substantial body of evidence that the system is failing to reward students with high test scores who come from low-income families. In a 2005 report, the College Board found that among those scoring highest in math tests in 1992, just under three-quarters of students from families in the highest quartile went on to get bachelor’s degrees by the year 2000. Among those from families in the bottom quartile, less than half that number, 29 percent, went on to get degrees.

Selective colleges truly want to admit and graduate students from all socioeconomic levels. But selective colleges must make certain demands of their students -- and it’s unfortunately difficult for many gifted students who lack other kinds of college readiness to meet those demands and go on to earn degrees. It’s not that the higher education “system is failing to reward students with high test scores who come from low-income families” but that many of these students are entering the higher education system unprepared for success.

These problems are only going to get worse. Writing from quite different ideological viewpoints, both Charles Murray and Don Peck have identified ways in which working and lower-middle class men are failing to marry and lead the kinds of families that endow children with the discipline, skills, and knowledge that make for college success. College, if it is a “increasingly powerful mechanism for the intergenerational reproduction of privilege,” is merely the last crank on a much more complicated social mechanism that has resulted in a growing gap between the cultures of those at the top and at the bottom of American society. The growing gap in cultures in turn results in a growing gap in college achievement, employment, and financial success. This is a hugely important problem for American today.

So how could a philanthropist address the problem of decreasing class mobility? One possibility would be to fund need-based college scholarships (alas, vanity has a part in philanthropy: too many philanthropists prefer to fund a building that will be named for them rather than scholarships). But such a philanthropist might equally well make an investment in programs that will help children and adolescents acquire the skills that -- along with smarts -- make for true college readiness.

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