Yesterday at Phi Beta Cons, Jane S. Shaw noted a WaPo piece by Richard D. Kahlenberg that discusses what he sees as “myths” about admission to college, and particularly to elite colleges. While some of the information he presents is useful to folks outside academia (for example, that social class is a bigger factor than race in terms of admission/denial), at least one portion of his article strikes me as naive, and it raises some of the same questions I’ve been trying to look at lately.
The first “myth” he confronts is that “Admissions officers have figured out how to reward merit above wealth and connections.” As he notes:
A 2004 Century Foundation study found that at the most selective universities and colleges, 74 percent of students come from the richest quarter of the population, while just 3 percent come from the bottom quarter.
However, he attributes the success of the upper quarter to wealth and connections, and adds:
Less obvious is the role of the SAT, which was, when it was introduced in 1926, supposed to help identify talented students from across all schools and backgrounds. Instead, it seems to amplify the advantages enjoyed by the most privileged students. New research by Georgetown University’s Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl finds that the most disadvantaged applicants (those who, among other characteristics, are black, attend public schools with high poverty rates, come from low-income families and have parents who are high school dropouts) score, on average, 784 points lower on the SAT than the most advantaged students (those who, among other things, are white, attend private schools and have wealthy, highly educated parents). This gap is equivalent to about two-thirds of the test’s total score range. If the SAT were a 100-yard dash, advantaged kids would start off 65 yards ahead before the race even began.
I’m not disputing that — although I was a public school kid from a working-class family with middle-class aspirations and a boho component (Mom and Dad were both Commercial Art majors in high school), with a father who earned his B.A. the same year I graduated from high school. I cleaned up on standardized tests (earning a National Merit Scholarship from my first-choice University), and have yet to discover any silver spoons in my bridgework.
Whatever success I’ve had in academia (and I’ve had enough to earn my Ph.D. union card) may be attributable to a number of factors, but it wasn’t due to a privileged background, any more than it was for my dad (the son of an ex-soldier/cabbie who died when dad was in school) or my mom (whose parents were a fire fighter and a drugstore cashier). Colleges and universities gave me chances (and second chances on a couple of occasions), but it wasn’t because I was to the manor born.
And that brings us to a point I think Kahlenberg is overlooking. Admissions officers at good schools want to bring in students who will succeed. Why is it surprising that successful subcultures would produce children who learn the traits that will help them succeed as well? Granted, some folks are naturally smarter than others, but if we notice that successful people have certain common behaviors, it isn’t unlikely they would model and teach those behaviors to their kids. As somebody said a while back, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6, KJV.)
Consequently, the disparity Kahlenberg mentions seems reasonable. The injustice isn’t that those people and their children are rewarded — it’s that the other children don’t learn these habits so that they can be rewarded as well.