Elitism and Education (Part III): Working Class Whites and Elite College Admissions

By Lisa R. Pruitt

Parts I and II of this series appeared in August, 2010 here and here.

Ever since Ross Douthat discussed No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life in a July 2010 column, I’ve been fretting about some of the book’s findings.  This 2009 book discusses the authors’ exhaustive study of college admissions, with particular attention to elite colleges.  Among the conclusions of Princeton sociologists Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford is that whites and Asians needed higher grades and SAT scores to gain admission, while blacks and Hispanics were favored in the admissions process.  Stated thusly, I am not troubled by the finding.  But then Douthat makes a related point, about the consequences of this fact on “lower-class” whites:

For minority applicants, the lower a family’s socioeconomic position, the more likely the student was to be admitted. For whites, though, it was the reverse. An upper-middle-class white applicant was three times more likely to be admitted than a lower-class white with similar qualifications.

Douthat goes on to explain that this failure to admit more working- and other “lower-class” whites may be “a money-saving tactic.”  Specifically, “Espenshade and Radford suggest that these institutions, conscious of their mandate to be multiethnic, may reserve their financial aid dollars ‘for students who will help them look good on their numbers of minority students,’ leaving little room to admit financially strapped whites.”

Douthat characterized this as “unsurprising,” noting also that the “downscale, the rural and the working-class” whites were most disadvantaged in the admissions process.  I will discuss the “rural” part of his assertion in a future post, but for now I want to focus on the working-class white part, geography aside.

I initially blogged last summer about Douthat’s column on my Legal Ruralism Blog here, but I was a bit skeptical of his summary so I ordered the Espenshade and Radford book.  By the time it got to me, the NYT had published Espenshade’s response to the Douthat column.  An excerpt follows:

“We find that applicants who demonstrate a strong commitment to career-oriented extracurricular activities while in high school have a slightly lower chance of being admitted to a top school.  This outcome affects only students who have won awards or assumed leadership positions in these activities, not those known for their extensive involvement.”

I do not understand the distinction Espenshade is making between leadership and awards on the one hand and extensive involvement on the other.  I would expect the two to go together, and I am unclear as to why winning awards and being a leader would be looked on less favorably than extensive involvement. In any event, Espenshade continues:

These extracurriculars might include 4-H clubs or Future Farmers of America, as Douthat mentions, but they could also include junior ROTC, co-op work programs, and many other types of career-oriented endeavors.

Espenshade thus challenges Douthat’s association of these activities with rurality.  Espenshade asserts instead that such activities “could just as well suggest that these students are somewhat ambivalent about their academic futures.”

This is consistent with what Espenshade and Radford say in their book, presenting the “bias,” if you will, as one against students whose interests run to what they characterize as “career-oriented.”  In a somewhat similar vein, they find that holding a part-time job during high school also hurts one’s admissions prospects.

In response to Espenshade’s clarification, Douthat points out the difference between admissions and acceptances, stating:

It’s a question of admissions offices looking at students who went to the effort of applying to elite schools (an act that already suggests a strong interest in an academic future of some sort) and downgrading their chances, for whatever reason, because they excelled in ROTC or the 4-H club or a co-op work program.

While I found Espenshade’s clarification helpful and agree that Douthat initially failed to provide adequate context, I tend to agree with Douthat’s point that the current system is not achieving optimal diversity.  If we really want diversity, shouldn’t we admit proven high school leaders with good grades and such, regardless of the nature of the extra-curricular activities in which they demonstrated their leadership?  I also must admit that I’m not really sure what sort of high school activities do not look “career-oriented.”  (But maybe that comment reflects both my age and my place of origin …)  It is, after all, high school.  Perhaps involvement in the arts or some such seems more impressive and more academic?  But opportunities to participate in the “right” enrichment activities may not be available in all schools or all communities.  Further, working class families may not be able to afford the costs associated with participation of some enrichment activities, just as educational travel may be beyond their reach.

In addition, it seems just plain wrong to me to hold against an applicant the fact s/he held a part-time job.  Where I come from, a part-time job is a reflection of industry, not lack of ambition.  (It is also often a reflection of need.)  I suppose, however, that more affluent parents discourage their children from working for pay because it diminishes the time they would have to invest in their studies and in the “right” extra-curricular and enrichment activities.  (For a fascinating discussion of the different child rearing priorities and practices of the white working class compared to the professional/managerial class, read the “Learning Class at Your Mother’s Knee” section of Joan Williams’ 2010 book, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter.)

Some aspects of the Espenshade and Radford study fly in the face of the pervasive notion that we are a nation in which social mobility is attainable for everyone, including working-class whites–indeed, maybe especially for them because they enjoy white privilege.  Maybe the lesson is that lower/working class folks are only supposed to ascend the socioeconomic ladder one rung at a time.  It’s OK if working-class whites get to college—maybe we even want them to—but perhaps we think they do not belong at elite colleges.  Maybe an elite education is actually a rung or two farther up the ladder, rungs reserved for a future generation, for the kids or grandkids of the generation that first makes it to college.

It nevertheless saddens me that this thwarting of class mobility for working-class whites is partly a consequence of the absence of admissions officers who actually know something about working-class families, not only their fiscal limitations but also the ethic of industry associated with them.   Otherwise, why would career-oriented activities be held against these students who—by engaging in such activities—may be hedging their bets in the event they don’t “make it” in higher education or, as the case may be, even get admitted to elite colleges.

Must everyone who gets into an elite college be either pre-ordained by (1) circumstances of birth into relative affluence or (2) the all-too-rare and lucky racial or ethnic minority who gets an affirmative action slot?   To my mind, the tunnel vision of elite college admissions officers is one more reason to be concerned about the relative absence of class migrants—including white class migrants (read more here)—from influential positions, including the ranks of college admissions officers.

Cross-Posted to UC Davis Faculty Blog and SALTLAW Blog.

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10 Responses to Elitism and Education (Part III): Working Class Whites and Elite College Admissions

  1. Pingback: Faculty Blog | Elitism and Education (Part III): Working Class Whites and Elite College Admissions

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