Class Based Affirmative Action

From the Huffington Post, this essay by Matthew Schweiger on class-based affirmative action, with examples of programs from UNC Chapel Hill, Amherst, and Harvard.

In Schweiger’s words,

In essence each of these institutions has America’s uncertain future at mind and, ultimately, an equally valuable vision of how to create a stronger democracy as we continue to proceed into the 21st century.

Refreshingly, there’s not yet a barrage of comments about admitting “the underqualifieed” and the inevitable decline of the academy if we started admitting people who could not afford select lacrosse teams or eco-service trips to Costa Rica. But stay tuned…

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.

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.