And still, they write about Karabel

Karabel’s essay on admissions at elite universities continues to stir some interest among bloggers.

Andrew, at his Union Street blog, responds by invoking Turner’s classic analysis of contest mobility (a presumably open system in which decisions about life trajectories are postponed until relatively late in ones educational career, after multiple opportunities to develop and to demonstrate “merit”) and sponsored mobility (such as the traditional systems of education in Europe, in which the few from the lower classes deemed to have distinctive merit are identified very early and are then sponsored through the system of elite education and eventual employment). He writes:

[A]dmissions processes have become highly, absurdly gamed, such that today even families at the top gnaw with anxiety over whether and how to ensure the best educational futures for their children. Of course, these families have the resources to act on their anxieties, and it’s reflected in the fact that the kids from socioeconomically privileged families aren’t simply coasting into schools on their parents’ backs – we’re not (just) talking about legacy babies here – but are meeting the prevailing standards of academic merit. They’re coming up with high SAT scores and GPAS and compiling the kinds of dazzling extracurricular and service records that college deans and admissions officers salivate over. It’s no big surprise, then, that they’re making it into good schools in spades, while others from the lower socioeconomic tiers rarely do. Still, the competition for status has reached the point that educational strategies now begin at increasingly earlier stages in childrens’ lives: ’saving up for my kid’s college fund’ can no longer be the only thing one does to ensure his or her future.

In contrast, Casey, missed Karabel’s central point about the social problem of qualified students being denied admission because of the limited ways in which “merit” is now measured. Instead, Casey argues that standardized tests are the only way to keep unqualified students out of the best universities and argues, as have others, that “we” must first invest more in the k-12 education of poor kids.

I am amazed at how easy it is for those who defend the growing economic stratification of higher education to slip into the language of pseudo-advocacy for poor and working class kids. In our contradictory public discourse about class, one can advocate –all within the same paragraph — for better schools for poor and working-class kids and for their exclusion from the universities that educate those who will hold the power to decide whether there is any urgency in initiating those reforms. The answer from the graduates of elite universities so far has, of course, been “no”.

When these bursts of advocacy for equitable school reform come mainly in response to arguments that we could at least begin with changes in a deeply flawed system of college admissions, they have to ring pretty hollow to the parents of the kids waiting on the sidelines.

While I should welcome any measure of advocacy for more equitable schooling, it seems infinitely more straightforward to simply accept the challenge of finding ways to screen college applicants by measures of “merit” that go beyond the test scores and extra curricular activities that can be purchased by wealthy parents.

Then, perhaps, with new voices at the table, the discourse about class and opportunity would become more nuanced.

2 thoughts on “And still, they write about Karabel

  1. Andrew September 29, 2007 / 12:57 pm


    I just noticed this and and your previous post on Karabel’s opinion piece, and agree that there’s an important discussion to be had, but isn’t taking place, on college admissions.

    Just a brief clarification. I also share in your sensibilities regarding our ‘contradictory public discourse’ about class. My references to Turner were an attempt on my part to draw upon a classic that I had happened to recently re-read, to think through some of the tropes and refrains that permeate this discourse, especially as it applies to higher education and social mobility issues (I was also trying to refract the Karabel piece back onto Turner, to see if his distinction retains potential for use in today’s context). In any event, I hope that I didn’t suggest in my rather unfocused comments that I was attempting to defend ‘the growing economic stratification of higher education’ while slipping into ‘a language of pseudo-advocacy for poor and working class kids.’ It’s just that I wasn’t particularly intrigued Karabel’s ‘lottery’ proposal, which seems to me to get at only indirectly the discussion that we need to have, as you suggest, about whether or not there are measures of merit that go beyond the test scores and extracurricular resumes. What interests me is how current admissions standards and definitions of merit are basically interpreted and accepted as markers of a ‘fair contest,’ even though they’re not. What I took as an implication of Karabel’s observations, sort of, was that the heightened status competition pressures in college admissions only intensifies the (mis-)impression held by middle class and upper-middle class parents that they’re in a contest. So it’s almost natural for them to regard the entry of their children into leading schools and colleges as gains earned and deserved, which leads to a predilection to reinforce prevailing measures of merit as ‘true’ and ‘correct.’ There’s a circular relationship, a loop, that’s emerging that is going to be difficult to break, but that’s the challenge.

  2. janevangalen October 1, 2007 / 5:52 am

    Hello, Andrew,

    I think you did a brilliant job of framing this conversation within Turner’s analysis. I teach that Turner piece and it doesn’t take my students too long to begin to ask “but wait a minute. Doesn’t our system feel like sponsorship sometimes?”.

    Yes — it is astounding to me how readily even those will no real stake in this game will jump in to defend status quo as the only possible way to identify “the qualified”. Karabel doesn’t take on that whole circular loop. He’s suggesting only one small way to build a small measure of evidence that there are other ways of assessing “merit”.

    And still …

    So how do we get the more direct conversation that we agree needs to happen?


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