Elite Universities and Socioeconomic Diversity


Over on Cranky’s Blog, it appears that John Butcher, like me, has little better to do this Memorial Day weekend than to ruminate upon the implications of a recent New York Times op-ed piece written by columnist David Leonhardt. Lamenting the paucity of smart kids from poor schools admitted to the nation’s elite universities, Leonhardt attributes much of the decline to cuts in state support, which forces universities to raise tuition, which in turn makes makes it harder for poor kids to attend. (I previously addressed Leonhardt’s column here.)

Leonhardt believes that the decline of poor kids in elite schools represents a closing off of the nation’s meritocracy. But an alternative way of looking at the picture is that elite schools admit the smartest kids, and that the smartest kids (as defined by SAT scores, which predicts academic success in a higher-education context) tend to be found among poor households in significantly smaller numbers. There is a social problem, but it isn’t elite university admission policies. The question isn’t why elite universities are failing poor kids. It’s why K-12 systems are failing them.

In his op-ed, Leonhardt presents a chart that shows the percentage of Pell Grant students at 20 elite public universities. The University of of Virginia and Virginia Tech are second and third lowest.

Cranky responds to these data points this way: “Those low numbers are not a problem unless one thinks that these schools should dilute their brands by admitting less qualified students.”

That is a tremendously important point. Read Cranky’s post to follow his logic and view the data supporting it. In the end, he concludes that a much more interesting question than Leonhardt’s is why poor kids graduate from college at much lower rates. And that brings us to the dismal quality of academic preparation offered by many high schools, as evidence by an article in today’s Washington Post profiling a Washington, D.C., public high school, Ballou High School.

Teacher turnover in schools serving lower-income populations — 25% at Ballou this year — is a perennial scourge. At Ballou, departing teachers cited frustration with large classes of students who were far behind academically, lacked the foundation to be successful, and often disrupted class. School administrators provided little backup to enforce order. As full-time teachers dropped out, temps and substitutes filled in. Instruction became disjointed and incomplete. Even motivated students suffered.

“Students simply roam the halls because they know that there is no one present in their assigned classroom to provide them with an education,” wrote a music teacher. “Many of them have simply lost hope.”

The Post described the situation of 11th-grader Dwight Harris:

 Harris said that since his teacher left, he hasn’t learned much in algebra. Substitutes have told him and his classmates to fill out worksheets, he said, which they answer by Googling the problems.

Many times, Harris said, he stays in the room for 10 minutes, long enough for the sub to mark him present. “I have no idea what my grade is right now,” he said, “but I think I’ll pass the class.”

Admittedly, Ballou is an extreme example of dysfunction, severe even by inner city standards. But problems like social promotion, disruptive students, disorderly classrooms, demoralized teachers, and excessive reliance upon temporary and substitute teachers are endemic. Students may be natively intelligent but it is a stretch to think that someone like Dwight Harris, no matter how bright and motivated, can graduate from such an environment as academically prepared as his peers at functional high schools.

Virginia high schools are graduating a higher percentage of students than ever. Consequently, a higher percentage of young Virginians, especially from poor households, are looking at college as the next step in their career progression. But are they academically prepared for college-level work? I’m persuaded that many are not.

To circle back to Cranky’s point, UVa could compromise its admission standards in order to appeal to the egalitarian sensitivities of David Leonhardt. But would that be a good idea?

At present, lower-income kids at the University of Virginia graduate at almost the same rate as rich kids, as can be seen in the graph at the top of the post. (The gap is wider at Virginia Tech, comparable to that of Virginia four-year institutions as a whole.) In other words, poor kids who gain admission to UVa deserve to be there. They are not displacing other students who could benefit more from a UVa education.

What if UVa began relaxing standards to admit more poor students? Would the poor students wind up better off than if they had attended a different university for which they were academically prepared? Or would they drop out at higher percentages after taking out big loans and saddling themselves with debt? Even from the perspective of the poor kids — to say nothing of kids who would be displaced — it could well be counter-productive to ask UVa or other elite universities to compromise their standards.

The problems of poor kids can be traced back to high school, and from high school back to middle and elementary schools, and from there to poverty-ridden environments at home. That’s the real issue, not a lack of socioeconomic diversity at elite institutions.

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11 responses to “Elite Universities and Socioeconomic Diversity

  1. As one who is a frequent critic …this blog post is GOOD!

    It actually gets to the real point: ” The problems of poor kids can be traced back to high school, and from high school back to middle and elementary schools, and from there to poverty-ridden environments at home. That’s the real issue, not a lack of socioeconomic diversity at elite institutions.”

    I’m absolutely not in favor of admitting kids – of any color, income range or socio-economic background to any 4yr if they are not academically qualified. It does no one any good least of all the kid.

    But I am puzzled by the idea that these kids apparently do have the good SAT scores so is Cranky essentially arguing that the SAT is a bad indicator?

    and finally – the fact that you have these “bad” schools in the very same county system that has many other “good” schools – what does that mean?

    I can’t believe Bacon actually says this: “… social promotion, disruptive students, disorderly classrooms, demoralized teachers, and excessive reliance upon temporary and substitute teachers are endemic” as opposed to opining about Charles Murray’s “theories” about race and IQ….

    congrats Jim!

    and thanks for the excellent post!

  2. You raise the key point that Leonhardt’s opinion piece overlooked.

    The follow on comments to your last post are otherwise excellent, including those many that reveal many of the numerous other flaws in our educational system that Leonhardt’s opinion piece also overlooks and ignores.

    At base, our system of higher education, both elite and non selective tiers, cannot begin do their job successfully if the majority of graduates coming out of our high schools today are functionally illiterate. The lower half of each glass of graduates are unable to read and write and do basic arithmetic at the 6th grade level, while most of the rest of each high class lack the knowledge, learning and achievement of 9th graders in the 1960s.

    Our system of post high school education is ruined in large part because we pretend that our colleges are giving kids a college education when in fact all but some 15% have not the clue as to what is going on in their classroom, nor are they likely to have a clue as to how their accruing debt for their bogus education will likely hobble or destroy their future, and that of America’s too.

  3. Totally agree with this. If they are not prepared, go to 2 year and pay for it until you can hit the big time. Then at least you can learn a trade (which we need plumbers, HVAC, roofers, etc.). At least that gives you a job and you can work for yourself if you want.

    I would see that birth control is paid for. Limits on kids. On welfare: 1 kid. That’s it. One Mom, one kid. People not on welfare have to limit themselves to what they can afford or have help with. Lots of ways of responsibility, accountability and discipline.

    Btw, I am quite in favor of the disruptors having forms of reprecussions.

  4. It’s clear what we are doing right now – is not working.

    busing was supposed to be the “answer” to not consigning kids in poverty to neighborhood schools that essentially focused and strengthened the negative impacts of those circumstances.

    But just to remind – we also do have “dysfunction” in non-poor families to the tune of about half of them divorce/separate also.

    the difference is in the education level of the parents and their ability to compete for and hold a job that generates enough income so that the family does not end up relying on entitlements and being consigned to “low income” neighborhoods.

    And you can see no stronger proof of this by observing what is going on in rural America now where income – not neighborhood is also going to generate low performing schools that in turn – the kids from those schools – also won’t end up with enough education to move to urban areas and compete for the better paying jobs – unless they have access to Community Colleges as well as remedial education programs.

    So in terms of politics – this comes down to people’s political philosophies to

    1. – recognize the realities of the problem and not one’s “beliefs”

    2.. – what should be done about it – and is it essentially something that govt should have a significant role in… standards.. funding… etc?

  5. For decades UVA has been hard to get into and hard to fail out of. Tech was easier to get in but harder to stay in.

    Repeating, college students are adults. Just like men and women who join the Army after high school are adults. Many college aged Americans made the ultimate sacrifice in the War on Terror.

    Why do we feel compelled to infantilize college students? Exercising free will young people attend college knowing that they are incurring expenses to do so. They choose the major they want to pursue knowing that some degrees are much more financially lucrative than others.

    If these 18 – 24 year olds get themselves into a financial bind – they need to solve their own problems.

    All college students are poor since almost none of them have any material income while in college. Yet we want to infantilize a 23 year old in his fifth year at UVA. We describe these students as “rich” or “poor” based on the economic status of their parents. Should the US Marines subsidize a Lance Corporal from a poor family more than from a middle class family?

    If 18 – 24 year old Americans are too young to be accountable for their financial actions as college students maybe they are too young to make the decision to join our armed forces as well.

    • Don says:

      “For decades UVA has been hard to get into and hard to fail out of. Tech was easier to get in but harder to stay in.”

      I believe the hinge point of change at UVA was the very late 1960s, after an earlier correction for the better in the late 1950s. As to the latter:

      It has been said that Edgar Shannon after his appointment as President in 1959 made it much harder to get into and much easier to “flunk out of” UVa. During my time as an undergraduate at UVA from 1963 to 1967 this was certainly the prevailing standard as to admission and retention.

      Grading back then was done “on the curve.” In my memory, students typically earned far more Bs than As. And far more Cs than Bs. Ds, in the other hand, were far more common than As. Importantly. Ds in regularity were not passing grades. An overall grave point average below 2.0 was redlining the system, seriously jeopardizing one’s chances at staying in UVA.

      Thus, for example:

      1st year students who joined a Fraternity typically pledged in November of their freshman year. My class that pledged in November of 1963 numbered 13. 10 remained 6 months later. By June, 3 had “funked out”.

      Then to my surprise, the start of my 2nd year (Sept. 1964) four Frat. Brother total strangers appeared. These had “funked out” earlier, sometime before my pledge year, taken a year or two or three off, then been allowed to return. They started again where they had left off. This was a regular pattern year after year then. Regular too was the fact that those who’d “funked out” earlier returned far more mature, stable, and competent – ready to take full advantage of what UVA had to offer.

      Importantly, and almost without exception, we looked up to these returning funked out students. Often they our leaders, whether holding office or not. And these funked out students, in my experience, were more likely to achieve success at UVA and after UVA, and some spectacularly so. Several who did not return also did the same else where, including several who never returned to college at all. The story of Edgar Allen Poe (and Bill Gates) are not legend, but regularly occur, year after years, no matter the time or place.

      Also back then in the 1960s, the vast majority of undergraduates I knew had to work hard graduate (even if that ‘working hard’ was sporadic, the all nighters had to be frequent, and some went on for days).

      And of course the reasons for “funking out” were many. But I do not remember one kid (NOT ONE, including athletes) who I though was not bright enough or prepared enough in High school sufficiently to do the work at UVA, despite in rigorous grading system and its honest enforcement.

      No, without fail, the students I knew who funked out were not willing to do the work. Although there were many reasons for that unwillingness, lack of a good high school preparation was not one of them. Some “funked out” because they were too smart, so bored. Some were emotionally not really. Some were at the wrong school for them, an artist or musician I recall who went to UVA and joined a fraternity because his father and grandfather did. The reason were as endless in variation as humans themselves. But lack of high school education was no where to be found in my experience at UVA.

      And this ‘system’ back then produced a great paradox. On one level we had to be serious about grades because we would otherwise “flunk out.” But status among us was not based on grades, and those who touted their grades were not respected by us, while making good grades was respected.

      Also, graduate students did not teach us undergraduates and those who I came across on the periphery (who say occasionally graded papers) were in my experience mostly “A-holes,” top often driven by insecurity. One this was for sure. The idea of those graduate students teaching me or my friends was laughable.

      On the other hand, the only courses that were sure to engage me, and many of undergrads I knew, were small seminar type graduate courses taught by fine professors (Prof. Ruhi Ramazni comes to mind) in addition to a few highly popular lecture hall survey courses given by legendary professors.

      Why did we respect good grades? Simple. They were hard to get. We respected the work that had to go into making good grades. And when we made such grades ourselves it built our confidence. And often this system forced us sooner instead of later To Engage to the Point of No Return. The system summoned up the answers to big questions. This is what I want to do. And I know I can to it.

      So after graduation from the UVA most of us were surprised at how good we were relative to the tasks we had to confront with others, and we knew deep down that we could do hard things because the UVA system had forced us to do hard things in order to graduate.

      And still, despite all this, we really didn’t know until later how talented and competent our classmates were relative to much of the outside world. Because for most at some point along the way during out stay at UVA we had to prove it to UVA, and to ourselves as well. Otherwise we’d risk funking out.

      • I was there from 1977 – 1981. Very very few people flunked out. Those who did flunk out rarely did so because of academic struggles. Some got bored, some got depressed by romantic failures and left. Maybe in the immediate post-Vietnam era there was a decision to create a “kindler / gentler” environment. By the time I was there you didn’t have to leave school because of bad grades. You could enroll in the School of Continuing Education and keep on trying to earn the credits needed to graduate.

        • Don –

          I wrote a great deal more below and earlier on this subject you continued but it somehow got zapped, evaporated into the ether.

          I’ll try to pick up that thread tomorrow.

          And also try to address Jim’s earlier UVA’s alleged anti-bloat firings post as well.

    • The systemic destruction of the requirement that students, whether in elite universities or otherwise, work hard to earn their degree, and prove their mastery of its subject before being awarded that degree, is the tap root that now poisons and today threatens to kill altogether the tree of education in America.

      There can be no doubt about this reality. And where it inevitability is taking us.

      No system of education, no matter how successful it has been in the past, can continue to insure a high quality of learning and human development among the requisite majority of its students without imposing rigorous standards of performance and proof of it on all teachers, students, and curriculum.

      Without such standards, it is inevitable, given human nature, that ever more students will learn nothing at college of any lasting value, and ever more teachers will over time forget how and what to teach, and bad habits will take over the behaviors of all involved as they and their institutions lose their focus on their mission to educate students, and the very reason they exist and are paid for their work.

      In short, everyone, teachers, students, and administrators will live an unfolding series of horrible, corrupting and pervasive, lies. frauds of the worst and most pervasive sorts.

      The fact of this systemic destruction

  6. re: ” infantilize …. based on the economic status of their parents”

    If the idea is to predict by the social-economic demographic status their “likelihood” to fail.. and therefore a policy to deny access.. then that is nothing more than overt discrimination… and I totally agree with DJ.

    On the other hand – kids – and often aided and abetted by their parents are viewing college loans – in very irresponsible ways … not unlike an “entitlement” .. that does not have to be paid back if things don’t work out.

    That’s not a good way to do loans – no matter the income level – and again – I am flummoxed that anyone would advocate any kind of discrimination based on what they “think” a given kid will do…

    And once again I ask – is someone claiming that SAT scores are not a valid qualification criteria for various demographics – like poor folks?

    One thing we need to do in my view… is do our best to get rid of our own biases and “beliefs” when we chew on issues on this and the number ONE is any suggestion of discrimination… on any basis – other than academic history and SAT ( or a better measure) scores.

  7. Pingback: Go to Pell – CrankysBlog

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