Rearranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic of American Education-Related Social Stratification

Peter Beinart, like all good heterodox liberals, thinks we should curb race-based affirmative action in college admissions in favor of something more focused on class. I’m open to this idea, though I’d like to see a specific proposal rather than a vague suggestion. But every time I hear this debate I have to wonder why we’re having it. The presumption that you can solve any significant problem of social justice in America by fiddling with Ivy League admissions policies is dead wrong, as is the idea that the main challenge poor people of any race face education-wise is that they might not get into an elite college.

Your application to Yale Law School is not a real social problem (cc photo by Marc Smith)

Your application to Yale Law School is not a real social problem (cc photo by Marc Smith)

People who are plausible admission candidates at Harvard and don’t quite make the cut end up at Columbia or Penn. People who don’t get into Berkeley go to UCLA. And they all end up fine. There’s just absolutely no need to cry for someone who got into Bryn Mawr instead of Wellesley thanks to affirmative action or legacy preference or structural bias in the SAT or anything else. This is a made-up social problem. Every single American teenager who winds up at a selective college of any kind is in very good shape in a country where (a) most people don’t have college degrees and (b) most colleges aren’t selective.

If you were to start writing a list of the problems faced by poor people in the United States of America you’d run out of paper long before you got to elite university admissions policies. Poor kids start school already behind their higher-SES peers. They are then disproportionately concentrated in low-performing schools featuring ineffective teachers. And when they’re in school is the lucky time! Every summer, the schools shut down and poor kids fall further behind their middle class peers. If they depend on the school lunch program to feed them, well then they’re out of luck come summertime on the eating front as well as the schooling front. A very substantial proportion of kids from poor families drop of out of highschool and those who do manage to get into any kind of college at all have much-reduced odds of actually graduating.

These are complicated, multi-faceted problems but they just have nothing to do with the admissions policies at fancy colleges. Even our program designed to funnel federal money to poor kids’ schools is a poorly targeted mess. But if you want to talk fancy schools and social class in America the thing to say is that massive social pressure should be brought to bear on rich people to stop donating money to fancy colleges and start giving it to either effective charter schools or else non-fancy non-selective colleges with a proven record of helping kids from low-SES backgrounds succeed.