Higher Education And Class Stratification

An excellent column by David Leonhardt notes that America’s elite colleges and universities are much more a driver of class stratification than an engine of opportunity:

The truth is that many of the most capable low- and middle-income students attend community colleges or less selective four-year colleges close to their home. Doing so makes them less likely to graduate from college at all, research has shown. Incredibly, only 44 percent of low-income high school seniors with high standardized test scores enroll in a four-year college, according to a Century Foundation report — compared with about 50 percent of high-income seniors who have average test scores.

“The extent of wasted human capital,” wrote the report’s authors, Anthony P. Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, “is phenomenal.”

This comparison understates the problem, too, because SAT scores are hardly a pure measure of merit. Well-off students often receive SAT coaching and take the test more than once, Mr. Marx notes, and top colleges reward them for doing both. Colleges also reward students for overseas travel and elaborate community service projects. “Colleges don’t recognize, in the same way, if you work at the neighborhood 7-Eleven to support your family,” he adds.


This is in part something we can try to improve on through better public policy. But another channel I would urge people to consider is simply social norms. Fancy colleges and universities are largely funded by charitable donations. People make these donations in part because doing so is a socially esteemed undertaking. If we, as a society, shift our idea of what kinds of activities should be valorized then donor behavior will shift and schools will find ways to be more credible ladders of opportunity.