You get to the heart of the issue much more concisely than I could.
Your final point makes me think of an article I just read from the
Chronicle of Higher Education
http://chronicle.com/weekly/v53/i19/19b00901.htm in which the author
reviews a book that explores how colleges and universities perpetuate
inequality through, for instance, admissions and funding practices,
and thus maintains the status quo. On your analysis the curriculum
itself serves, at least in part, a similar function.
PS I've pasted below the text of the article I referenced.
>I always enjoy reading your responses, Nic. I am working on my dissertation
>which is heavily reliant on curriculum theory from a poststructuralist
>perspective. The questions you raise closely align with those that I think
>are important. We need to consider where we get our ideas about what it
>means to be "educated", the ways in which certain curricula lend to the
>maintenance of a status quo, and how we can be persistent in exposing the
>covert ideologies embedded in the canon by rigorously examining the
>assumptions that undergird the (re)production of any particular "standard".
>I am of the opinion that most curricular conventions are the result of
>contingent turns in history, and political and polemical interests, that
>serve to ensure that the folks who first attended/succeeded in college are
>the same ones that do so today.
>K. Leigh Hamm Forell
>Student Recruitment Manager
--How Colleges Perpetuate Inequality
By PETER SACKS
Colleges, once seen as beacons of egalitarian hope, are becoming
bastions of wealth and privilege that perpetuate inequality. The
chance of a low-income child obtaining a bachelor's degree has not
budged in three decades: Just 6 percent of students from the
lowest-income families earned a bachelor's degree by age 24 in 1970,
and in 2002 still only 6 percent did. Lower still is that child's
chance of attending one of America's top universities.
But while the growing class divide may be among the most compelling
higher-education stories, political and educational leaders have been
slow to respond. The rich and powerful of both the left and the right
seem to have convinced them that confronting that divide comes at
their peril. Members of America's ruling class have too much at
stake, including family legacies, for their children not to follow in
their footsteps to Harvard, Yale, or Michigan.
A growing number of scholars and journalists, however, are beginning
to note the disturbing trends. Among them is Daniel Golden, whose
recent book, The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys
Its Way Into Elite Colleges - and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates
(Crown Publishers, 2006) details the myriad ways that, for those born
with silver spoons, standards are relaxed and hands are held through
every stage of the admissions process at selective colleges. In
return for such favors, wealthy parents and donors lavish such
institutions with money.
Those may not be astonishing revelations for some readers. But The
Price of Admission, based upon articles that originally appeared in
The Wall Street Journal, is nevertheless a remarkable piece of
investigative reporting, confirming for readers what they perhaps
long suspected. Golden names names and finds smoking guns. He devotes
one chapter, for instance, to the rise of Duke University as an elite
institution. By taking to unprecedented heights the practice of
"development admits," Golden reports, it fudged academic standards
for rich kids at the high price of "the integrity of [its] admissions
Golden paints a similar portrait of Harvard, the richest university
on the planet with an endowment of more than $25-billion. He explains
how it has perfected the art of producing wealthy, well-connected
alumni who will generously give back to their alma mater. To do that,
Harvard doesn't necessarily want the brightest students, but rather
socially "well rounded" ones who are most likely to become highly
paid executives, lawyers, or investment bankers, or powerful
politicians. Thus, while its overall admission rate is about 9
percent, Golden figures the rate for students from families who are
part of the Committee on University Resources, a select group of
wealthy donors, is well over 50 percent.
And so it goes in Golden's condemning account, as he offers similar
stories of legacy admissions at the University of Notre Dame and what
he calls celebrity admissions at Brown University (where the media
mogul Michael Ovitz seems to have parlayed fame and fortune into
admission for his son, whom Golden describes as a mediocre student).
After a host of admissions favors given to wealthy donors, legacies,
and recruited athletes, the poor "unhooked" schmucks who must compete
in the regular applicant pool have to "walk on water," as one Notre
Dame official put it, to have any chance at such places.
Elite-college admissions is corrupt, or at least corruptible, Golden
suggests, because the influence of wealth and power is commonplace.
Unfortunately, the examples he cites start to blend together: Elite
College X bends its standards to admit the children of the rich and
famous. As a series of articles, that made for fascinating reading,
but whether the material has enough depth and variety for a big-think
book may be a question for readers familiar with recent trends in
Moreover, the ground Golden covers is but a chapter in the larger
story of how higher education is infused with class biases, and the
issues are thornier and more complex than he portrays. He doesn't
explore, for example, how one's advantages or disadvantages from
birth are compounded at each step of the education system by how
colleges define merit and interact with families to reward the most
Golden himself graduated from Harvard in 1974 and is the son of two
professors. Who's to say that he was more deserving of a Harvard
education than a son of a janitor from Topeka who scored 150 points
lower on the SAT? While he tells us that he takes no position on the
utility of the SAT as an accurate measure of merit, his narrative
contradicts him at every turn. He can't make implicit judgments about
the worthiness of a rich donor's son going to Harvard or Duke without
using its average SAT as his standard.
But educational researchers have long understood that admissions-test
scores correlate closely with parental income and education, making
them a reflection of the cultural and educational capital that
children acquire from families and schools. Thus, children of the
intellectual elite are arguably as privileged in selective-college
admissions as the children of rich donors. And if a rich donor's
child with middling credentials gets into Harvard paying full tuition
so that the janitor's son might get a scholarship, who is to say that
the current system isn't better than a strictly "merit"-based one in
which all candidates can be ranked by SAT scores and high-school
The problem, as Golden rightly points out, is that elite colleges
have largely ignored socioeconomic disadvantage in their calculations
of merit and their definitions of diversity. The underlying reason
for that failure, which Golden doesn't confront, is that higher
education is simply a weird business. Gordon C. Winston, an economics
professor at Williams College, has observed that colleges are part
church and part car dealer. They often talk the talk of Martin Luther
King Jr., but, as self-interested institutions focused on their own
survival, they more often walk the walk of an investment banker.
While corporations maximize profits for shareholders, private
colleges are essentially in the business, not necessarily of
imparting knowledge or contributing to the public good, but of
maximizing their endowments. Yet, unlike corporations whose profits
are a fairly straightforward result of some tangible production
process, elite colleges' endowments derive from something far more
intangible: reputation and prestige.
Thus, while such institutions are in the education game, they're also
in the ratings game, chronicled year in and year out by U.S. News &
World Report's annual list of "America's best colleges." According to
U.S. News's worldview, one that has become received wisdom in popular
culture, good colleges don't result from doing well by students;
rather, "good" colleges are defined by how attractive their students
are when they arrive on campus, often based on the average SAT score
of the freshman class. Hence, colleges engage in all manner of
sophisticated techniques for identifying, recruiting, and enrolling
the kinds of students who will contribute to their prestige.
That elite colleges will serve the public good only as long as it
does not interfere with their financial survival may be an important
reason why they continue to support affirmative action. The
relatively small number of members of underrepresented minority
groups admitted has little impact on endowments, and racial
preferences allow colleges to preserve definitions of merit that
largely benefit children from affluent and well-educated families
that donate money. Elite institutions would be hard pressed not to
advocate affirmative action while offering equivalent preferences to
children of alumni - a largely white and affluent group. Indeed,
Golden argues rather persuasively that it was the link between legacy
and racial preferences that saved affirmative action in the Supreme
Court's 2003 rulings in the University of Michigan cases. He notes
that five of the nine justices had qualified for a legacy preference
themselves or had children who had.
At the admissions gate, where college officials decide who to enroll,
low-income students have few, if any, advocates. Nevertheless, the
rhetoric of college presidents on behalf of such students continues
to amplify. For instance, at the "Politics of Inclusion: Higher
Education at a Crossroads" conference in September at the University
of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I watched the president of the
College of William and Mary, Gene R. Nichol, give a stirring speech
about the need for elite institutions to pay more attention to
socioeconomic disadvantage, suggesting that the rhetoric of
inclusiveness was surpassing actual practice. He might have offered
his own institution as a case in point: Just 8 percent of its
undergraduates during one recent year were eligible for Pell Grants.
Even though The Price of Admission discusses but a small part of the
class divide in higher education, one hopes that it will entice more
people to focus on an issue that isn't getting nearly enough
attention. Our collective failure to come to grips with the reality
of our exclusionary system will lead to unfortunate economic
consequences for the entire nation. Already, the signs are evident
that the United States will get its proverbial lunch eaten in the
global marketplace, as other countries are aggressively expanding
educational opportunity while, here, the rich and powerful enjoy a
new Gilded Age, policy makers continue to ruminate, and college
presidents continue to give stirring speeches.
Studies underscoring the problem continue to pile up. A report from
the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assist-ance, an
independent panel that advises Congress, found that during the 1990s
between 1 million and 1.6 million college-qualified high-school
graduates from low- and moderate-income families did not complete a
bachelor's degree, presumably because of financial constraints. This
decade, the committee estimates, between 1.4 million and 2.4 million
additional bachelor's degrees will be lost to our economy.
The latest of the alarming reports comes from the College Board in
its recent book, College Access: Opportunity or Privilege?, edited by
the economists Michael S. McPherson, president of the Spencer
Foundation, and Morton Owen Schapiro, president of Williams College.
The book, based on papers and presentations from a 2005 conference,
isn't as scintillating as The Price of Admission, but it portrays
higher education's looming crisis of access with the complexity that
the subject deserves.
There are no easy answers or obvious villains. For all but the
richest institutions, enrolling more low-income students boils down
to a trade-off: Do you provide full scholarships to a limited number
of low-income students who meet existing admissions criteria for
grades and test scores, or do you greatly expand access but provide
limited amounts of financial aid for needy students?
Indeed, virtually all of the highly publicized efforts by top
institutions - Harvard, the University of Virginia, the University of
North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and others ensuring that needy
students graduate debt free - are financially feasible because so few
lower-income students are admitted. Even if elite colleges don't
deliberately limit their numbers of low-income students, their
definitions of merit and their prestige-driven enrollment-management
practices produce that result.
Many more lower-income students, however, could probably succeed
quite nicely at even the most selective colleges than those
institutions have been willing to take in. In one of the more
provocative papers in College Access, Gordon Winston and Catharine B.
Hill, then a professor of economics at Williams and now president of
Vassar College, contrast the demand for lower-income students at 28
elite private institutions with the national supply of such students
scoring at different intervals on the SAT. Some 70 percent of the
students at those colleges come from families in the highest income
quintile, and just 10 percent come from families in the bottom two
While the authors have a maddening tendency to suggest that SAT
performance and "ability" are equivalent concepts - a careless and
highly debatable assumption - I would suggest that their data do
powerfully demonstrate that the highly skewed representation of
lower-income students at the 28 elite colleges stems primarily from
the SAT. Thus, if those institutions truly wanted to create more
socioeconomic diversity, they would open up the SAT filter. For
instance, suppose the colleges were to set their target SAT average
at 1110, which is perhaps 200 points below their existing average. To
match the national percentages of lower-income students, the 28
colleges would have to increase their yearly enrollments of such
students by 3,300. As to whether there are enough lower-income
students to meet that demand, the answer is overwhelmingly clear: In
2003 there were at least 109,000 such students across the nation, and
perhaps many more, considering that many low-income test takers do
not report family-income data.
Winston and Hill's interpretation of the results is on the grim side
because they appear to believe that selective colleges would be
setting their sights too low by relaxing SAT targets to 1110. "What's
happened to low-income students before they reach college age means
that few are in a position to take advantage of a highly demanding
and selective education, even at a very low price," they write.
That assertion strikes me as condescending, at best, and terribly
elitist, at worst. More than enough lower-income students are
prepared to succeed at elite colleges, even by the standards of merit
that those institutions hold dear. While defenders of the status quo
warn that relaxing SAT averages would lead to the dumbing down of our
great higher-education institutions, research documenting efforts to
diminish the influence of test scores has demonstrated that the dire
warnings are unfounded.
For example, in a study on the effectiveness of the SAT I to predict
college performance at the University of California, the researchers
Saul Geiser and Roger Studley examined 78,000 student records from a
four-year period, finding that the SAT I was the poorest predictor of
college performance when compared with high-school grades and the SAT
II subject tests. In fact, the SAT I added no predictive value beyond
what could be gleaned from grades and SAT II test scores.
No, the reason selective colleges are socioeconomically homogenous is
because most of them do not have a business model that can feasibly
accommodate an influx of needy students. Take the dilemma of Bryn
Mawr College, which David W. Breneman, dean of the school of
education at the University of Virginia and a professor there,
described in College Access. While highly selective, it is among the
top of its peers in institutional financial aid but has a relatively
modest endowment. So it is pressured to keep tuition high (and the
discount rate off the sticker price low) while holding the line on
costs, which is reflected in its comparatively low faculty salaries.
"The ensuing balancing act that is necessary to lower the discount
rate while still attracting and helping to finance low-income
students is a constant tension that the college faces," writes
Breneman. "For all but the wealthiest colleges, it serves no purpose
to ignore this financial dilemma and strike moral poses; many
colleges simply must enroll a reasonable percentage of full-pay
students in order to balance the budget." At the other end of the
selectivity scale, Breneman outlines the challenges facing public
institutions like the University of Illinois at Chicago, where fully
37 percent of undergraduates receive Pell Grants.
Where is the solution to this puzzle? For his part, Golden challenges
colleges to adhere to "wealth blind" admissions: They should abolish
preferences and build ethical fire walls between admissions and
development offices to prevent conflicts of interest. Some of his
suggestions may be financially feasible and also modestly increase
the enrollments of lower-income students at some exclusive colleges.
The key word here is modestly. If our best colleges really wanted to
open their gates to lower-income students, they would use admissions
tests like the SAT a lot more creatively - if they used them at all.
Meanwhile, Harvard recently garnered widespread attention and praise
for its decision to end its early-admissions program, suggesting that
such admissions programs are unfair to lower-income students. But a
far bolder move by Harvard or Princeton - which quickly followed
Harvard's lead - would be to stop cooperating with the U.S. News
rankings. Highly regarded Reed College has refused to do so since the
mid-1990s, following disclosures that some colleges were manipulating
data to rise in the rankings. Playing Sopranoesque hardball in
apparent retaliation, the magazine refused Reed's request to be
dropped, arbitrarily assigning it to second-tier status.
The magazine could play no such games with the likes of Harvard,
Yale, or Princeton, which have sufficient stocks of institutional
prestige to go on building endowment regardless of the rankings. But
their opting out of the rankings game would produce incalculable
social benefits, not least of which is the rankings' probable demise.
Smaller, less-wealthy colleges like Bryn Mawr or Reed could pursue
their missions without having to compete in a prestige-driven arms
race that relentlessly pressures them to maintain SAT averages,
limiting their willingness to enroll more needy students.
But the financial constraints remain. Policy makers looking to expand
socioeconomic diversity at institutions that have culturally and
economically evolved on the premise of exclusivity - to which
national leadership in business, politics, and education has been
closely wedded - face an imposing task.
Perhaps the existing business model will eventually change, whereby a
renaissance in government support for lower-income students occurs as
leaders grasp the seriousness of America's economic prospects on the
global stage. Perhaps, too, that same renaissance will come to the
aid of ailing public institutions, which the nation has historically
charged with educating the vast majority of students of modest means.
As the saying goes, watch what they do, not what they say.
Peter Sacks is author of Standardized Minds: The High Price of
America's Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It (Perseus
Books, 1999). His new book, Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the
Class Divide in American Education, will be published in May by the
University of California Press.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 53, Issue 19, Page B9
Knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention, through
the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry men pursue in
the world, with the world, and with each other. --Paolo Freire
Dominic (Nic) J. Voge
Study Strategies Program Coordinator
University of California, Berkeley
Student Learning Center
136 Cesar Chavez Student Center #4260
Berkeley, CA 94720-4260
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