Blogging Karabel

There was only limited reaction in the blogosphere yesterday to Karabel’s NYT opinion piece on making elite universities more accessible to applicants from lower income families.

Looking at the bigger picture was Mad Melancholic Feminista, who wonders why affirmative action debates still get so much attention when it’s clear that few elite kids are losing “their” place in college to less advantaged students.

The Edwonkette, citing research that attendance at an elite college matters particularly for low-income students, laments the whining of elite parents about their children’s college admissions as so many students are shut out of the competitive schools altogether.

Regrettably, others focused much more narrowly. Focusing on the presumed deficits of applicants with lower SAT scores rather than on the larger social issues raised by the growing socio-economic segregation of the colleges and universities at which the nation’s (and world’s) leaders are being educated were two other blogs:

Simply accepting, without question, the assertion that SAT scores are predictive of success in college were the student editors of UC Berkeley’s daily blog who empathetically lament the inequalities in K-12 schooling that produce “inequalities at the college level”. In spite of their own presumably high SAT scores, these student editors seem to have missed the point that Karabel was talking about misguided admissions criteria that underpredict college success, not inequalities in performance once one gets in the door. They’d do well to read Peter Sacks’ account of the shift of the UC system to “comprehensive review” of admissions that looks beyond test scores, and at his rather scathing analysis of the very limited predictive value of SAT scores on college success

Study Hacks , presuming that admissions officers are motivated simply by finding the most pristinely meritorious students, argues that applicants get little benefit from SAT prep courses and that admissions officers can “sniff out” the influences of college counselors. Is Hacks arguing that all of those wealthy and powerful parents who spend thousands of dollars on each are simply naive?

Neither of these writers as much as mentioned Karabel’s parallel critique of the weight placed on long lists of extra curricular activities in admissions decisions, as if (as I wrote in a comment to Hacks)  it’s self evident that someone who captained his high school water polo team is inherently better prepared for college than someone who has cared for younger siblings while parents worked two jobs, has had to take the initiative herself to navigate complicated admissions processes, has excelled in school in spite of the mediocre teachers and limited supplies, who even had the courage to dream things for herself that few others around her could dream.

I do wish that these issues generated more public interest, and I deeply wish for more informed deliberations about all things related to class.

4 thoughts on “Blogging Karabel

  1. Cal September 25, 2007 / 6:07 am


    I think this is a fascinating discussion. To clarify slightly the comments regarding Study Hacks (i.e., me), I don’t presume that admissions officers are “motivated simply by finding the most pristinely meritorious students.”

    My side argument about SAT prep was simply that they are not any more effective than taking a few sample tests. That is, given two students from the same school, if one student has the money to afford SAT prep, this alone doesn’t confer a big advantage over the other.

    My bigger point was, however — and I think we agree here — is that these types of arguments are different from the larger, more important argument of access to higher education across all socioeconomic classes. In my formulation, issues about SAT prep and college consolers are slight. The privileged complaining about the slightly more privileged. And these can confuse matters when, as in the Karabel piece, they are mixed in with discussions of the larger, more systemic problems spanning socioeconomic access to college.

    One final note. You ask: “Is Hacks arguing that all of those wealthy and powerful parents who spend thousands of dollars on each are simply naive?” My answer: yes. It’s a crazy world…with the right degree and upper eastside office, you could problem make a fortune selling admissions voodoo dolls or Harvard-Brand magic beans to these parents.

    – Cal

  2. janevangalen September 25, 2007 / 8:54 am

    Hi, Cal,

    Thanks for much for the ongoing conversation. It is, indeed, fascinating.

    You make an excellent point: that this argument about the relative advantages of the slightly more and slightly less privileged can divert attention from the bigger issues.

    And I think that part of discussing bigger issues has to be about questioning the neutrality of admissions

    I think that SAT scores are exactly “magic beans” (great language!). They don’t really predict success, they are more accessible to the privileged than to the less privileged (I’d like to seem some studies on your theory that simple practice tests can supplant Kaplan), but once that advantage is established, it’s almost impossible to talk about scores being, essentially, magic beans. Instead, that argument keeps getting diverted to how we first have to find ways to get more magic beans to poor kids because then the college admissions process will take care of itself.

    I think that privileged parents are more savvy than naive — if they can find some measure on which their kids will do better than others, they can be sure (through their alum organizations, through threats of withheld donations, through media and through the courts) that those measures are defended as neutral and valuable — even in the face of the kind of counter evidence that Karabel cites.

    So, if we didn’t use the magic beans of SAT scores, how would we judge merit in admissions?


  3. Cal September 27, 2007 / 5:56 am


    A good example of tackling this problem can be found in the approach taken by the University of California Public University System. Their in-house studies found relatively weak correlations between SAT I scores and Freshman GPA. When considered along with the socioeconomic inequities connected to these tests, they dropped them entirely from the admissions process.

    This allows their admissions officers to make a more nuanced judgment on merit. A student who manages to remain on the honor roll in a deteriorating school, amidst a deteriorating home environment, can, under this system, now be see as possessing as much merit as, say, a valedictorian from a well-funded, high-achieving district. SAT scores might have fogged this view.

    Not that I have an expertise on which to back up this claim, but drawing strictly from anecdote, gut, and experience, I tend to defer toward the undervalued skill of the admissions professional. They’re good at what they do. It seems to me that the most likely place to instigate an immediate improvement in college diversity is in the admissions office.

    Issues remain. Namely, the Newsweek ranking, and its dependence on keep certain metrics on your incoming class high. But simple acts, like dropping the SAT from your application requirements, goes a long way toward sidestepping this obstacle. If can give admissions offices both the funding and latitude they need, change might be closer than we hoped?

    Dare to dream…

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