Two Perspectives on Access to Higher Ed

I read two very different perspectives on access to higher education yesterday.

The Carnegie Foundation posted this essay proposing that we define higher education as a birthright for all, rather than a privilege. The author, Ray Bachetti, contrasts his family’s history — in which government investments, a healthy measure of luck, and the privileges of race enabled his generation to become educated and to then pass the “cultural capital” of the educated on to their children and grandchildren –with today’s policy climate in which access is limited by rising costs, declining government support, and persistent gaps in achievement and attainment.

(There are multiple thoughtful comments posted with the essay – note Sherry Linkon’s post on the cultural issues that can depress achievement and attainment even when poor and working class kids do jump the hurdles to access).

Speaking particularly of access to those schools that conferred the most privilege to graduates from Bachetti’s generation, Kevin Carey argues that the much-publicized intensified competition for admission to Ivy League colleges is largely a statistical myth because 1) more applicants are applying to more schools, creating larger numbers of rejections, even while young people are still being admitted somewhere, and b) elite colleges have increased admissions slots by 8% in recent years, in proportion to the growth in numbers of “baby boom echo” high school students now seeking admission to college.

Carey doesn’t talk at all about the equally well-publicized rising bar for admissions, about how those with any hope of being admitted will now be expected to have have spent summers volunteering on ecological restoration projects in Costa Rica (rather than working to pay for school), that they’ll have lived in a neighborhood in which schools offer multiple AP courses, that they’ll be heavily involved in sports and drama (not jobs) after school, that their SAT scores will reflect the extensive private coaching that their parents have provided.

Carey does, however, offer this explanation for the increase in applications at Ivy League Schools, over and above the increase in the number of kids graduating now from high school:

There has likely been an increase in the number of unqualified students treating the Harvard application like a Powerball ticket. An Ivy League education can be worth millions of dollars over a lifetime. To take a shot at one, all you need is $65.00 and a dream.

Given that Harvard and Yale are turning away thousands of students with 4.0 high school GPAs and many with perfect SAT scores (according to NYT Select articles on April 1 and 4, from which I unfortunately cannot generate blog-friendly URLs), it’s not clear what Carey considers “unqualified”. It’s not clear, either, how he distinguishes between those who have no more understanding of college admissions than the Powerball players at the corner Quickstop, and those who have carefully played by all of the rules of the game, only to find that the game now is being played on an entirely different field.

In short, Carey evades the entire point that the odds of admission to places like Harvard and Yale have indeed declined for those not already ensconced in the upper-middle class.

The parents and grandparents of those kids packing their bags for summer adventures in Costa Rica were supported by public policy that acknowledged that “the education of any enriches all”.

Yet now, many from those generations justify policies that extend the privileges that they’ve enjoyed only to people like them, in part by defining everyone else as “unqualified” — or worse, as simply deluded.

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