Although most such arguments contained kernels of truth, one had so sift through an awful lot of overstatement and false assumption find them. What follows is a discussion of what the research on the subject actually says, and why it matters.
As discussed in detail here on a Chronicle of Higher Education blog on academic publishing, the book that was erroneously credited with providing the smoking gun of elite-college bias against working-class, Christian, red-state, white kids is No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life. It was written by Thomas J. Espenshade, professor of sociology at Princeton University, and Alexandria Walton Radford, a research associate at the Washington-based consulting firm MPR Associates, based on their exhaustive analysis of federal data and of institutional records and student survey results from eight unnamed elite colleges.
Espenshade and Radford conclude in their book that coming from an economically disadvantaged background appears, in itself, to hurt a white student's chances of gaining admission to an elite private college. That's hardly news to anyone who follows such research. The likely explanation for much--or maybe even all--of the uphill climb faced by competitive low-income and working-class white applicants lies in the fact that they generally are denied any sort of admission preference, and they are competing for a finite number of freshman class seats against several populations for whom the bar is lowered. Confirming other research discussed at length in Color and Money, Espenshade and Radford found that such colleges show favoritism toward, for example, blacks and Hispanics, legacies, and graduates of prestigious high schools. By definition, white kids from humble backgrounds do not qualify for minority preferences. And, by virtue of their background, they are unlikely to be legacies, or to have graduated from expensive private high schools or from well-financed and well-regarded public high schools in wealthy communities. They may qualify for another type of admissions preferences widely used by colleges--preferences for recruited athletes. But here they often are hindered by inequities in high schools' athletic programs, as well as the challenges their families likely faced in financing their kids' involvement in sports that cannot be played at advanced levels without club memberships, travel, or expensive equipment. (See, for example, Chapter 5 of Dan Golden's The Price of Admission, titled "Title IX and the Rise of the Upper Class Athlete.")
Being unlikely to benefit from favoritism does not necessarily equate to being the target of outright bias, and Espenshade and Radford do not claim to have any evidence that elite private colleges are specifically biased against white students from humble backgrounds. That is not to say conclusively that no such bias exists. Color and Money summarizes research showing that faculty members disproportionately are the children of professionals, and that tenured faculty members and college administrators generally earn salaries that put them at or above the middle-class level. (Many college presidents and high-level administrators earn enough to be classified as nothing less than filthy rich.) But, while a lot of anecdotal evidence and qualitative research suggests that elite colleges can seem like unwelcoming environments to faculty members and students from the working class, there exists, at this point, no smoking gun showing that the institutions' systematic exclusion of many working-class students is based on cultural or political antipathy. It might well be the case, instead, that the backgrounds of many people at such institutions leave them without much sympathy for white people who are not as well off, or personally invested in the status quo and the belief (inscribed on many of Austria's community beer-drinking tables) that the people who belong there are the people who are there. Many college admissions officers characterize the problem as structural: They say they bend over backwards to recruit--and urge their institutions to admit--white kids from humble backgrounds, only to find many such applicants getting bumped out of the running to make room for admission candidates championed by the athletics director, the diversity office, and people using the admission process to do favors for college employees, donors, and the politically powerful.
Where did those taking the conclusions of Espenshade and Radford a step further--and alleging bias against white, Christian, working-class, rural, red-state America--lay hands on their purported smoking gun? It was a finding by the two researchers that high levels of involvement in career-oriented extracurricular activities—such as the 4-H Clubs, Future Farmers of America, the ROTC, and co-op work programs—are all associated with lower admission odds.
Their book does not offer any explanation for the finding. In interviews with The Chronicle, the researchers pointed out that the types of activities they classified as "career-oriented" included Model United Nations, mock trial groups, and clubs for young entrepreneurs. Nevertheless, because their book left out those other activities and specifically cited the ROTC and farming-oriented organizations, it was seized upon as offering evidence that elite colleges are biased against applicants who love their country and come from the countryside. Although Espenshade and Radford did not examine the relative admissions prospects of students from different religious groups, their book also was cited as providing evidence that elite colleges discriminate against Christians.
Russell K. Neili, a lecturer in Princeton University's political science department, first argued the existence of such biases in a July 12 essay on the Manhattan Institute's blog, Minding the Campus. As part of a broader critique of affirmative action, Neili's essay said No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal shows elite colleges are biased against participants in "Red State activities" in a way that is "truly shocking even to this hardened veteran of the campus ideological and cultural wars." The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat then spread the word with a July 18 New York Times essay titled "The Roots of White Anxiety." Patrick Buchanan got on board a day later with "Bias and Bigotry in Academia."
The columnists making such claims clearly touched a nerve. And, to be fair, Douthat was on to something in asserting that the political gap between the nation's elite and its working class is at least partly attributable to elite colleges' admission policies, and, in particular, the institutions' use of affirmative action. As Color and Money notes, many white people who lack the cash and connections to get their children an edge in elite college admissions perceive such institutions as biased against them. And, since the days of George Wallace, conservative politicians and pundits have been exploiting such suspicions by scapegoating affirmative-action preferences as the chief force keeping many white applicants out of elite colleges, even though such applicants are far more likely to lose their seat to an unqualified white kid who received favoritism than a minority beneficiary of racial or ethnic preferences. The writings of Neili, Douthat, and Buchanan--and the significant buzz they generated--can be seen as exhibit A in support of the argument, made in Color and Money and elsewhere, that support for affirmative action carries substantial political cost for liberals, making it harder for them to hold positions of power long and tackle the broader societal problems that leave many minority and lower-income students educationally disadvantaged.
Even if there was nothing in No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal to support it, the assertion that elite colleges are biased against Christians was not entirely off the mark. There are, in fact, some Christian religions whose members once faced bias in applying to elite colleges, in many cases because their religions are associated with certain ethnic groups that were the victims of bias. (Think Irish, Italian, and Polish Catholics.) Up until about World War II, many of our nation's top colleges, especially those of the Ivy League, were dominated by old-money families that tended to be Congregationalist, Episcopalian, or Presbyterian, and, on a related note, could trace their lineage to northern European countries that played a key role in colonizing the United States, such as England and Holland. To retain their hold on America's top colleges, these populations persuaded the administrations of many such institutions to actively discriminate against certain populations--such as people who were Jewish, black, or Catholic--and in favor of certain populations with insider status, such as the children of alumni. Blatant anti-Semitism went out of fashion at such institutions after World War II. The civil rights movement, a desire to quell the rioting of the 60s, and corporate America's willingness to bestow money upon colleges that help diversify workforces all led to colleges to go from discriminating against black, Hispanic, and Native American applicants to actively favoring such populations in admission decisions. But legacy preferences and other policies that favored applicants with insider status remained largely in place, working to the benefit of those groups that had gotten through the door and the disadvantage of those groups that remained largely shut out. This--and the enormous correlation between wealth and preparation for college admissions--helps explain why some of the Christian populations that once dominated such institutions continue to account for a disproportionate share of their enrollments, while many of the Christian populations that historically were shut out of such institutions remain under-represented at them to this day. (For more on old-money Christian families, see this article on the Social Register.)
The assertion that elite colleges are biased against politically conservative students provides interesting food for thought. Certainly, college faculties generally have been shown to a larger percentages of liberals and Democrats in their midst than American society in general. One can imagine your typical Ivy League admissions committee reacting coldly to an applicant who rejects the theory of evolution and thinks any gay professors or students on campus are bound for hell. But there is no research showing that politically conservative students are disadvantaged in the admissions process, and certainly no evidence of deliberate decisions by elite colleges to screen them out of the applicant pool. If one wants to use "red" state residency as a proxy for political conservatism, Espenshade and Radford's research actually might provide evidence of favoritism toward such students. They found that coming from such "red" states as Alabama, Montana, and Utah actually appears to give applicants to elite colleges an advantage, because such colleges receive relatively few applications from those states and like to boast that their entering freshman classes are so geographically diverse they represent every state in the union. Given, however, that it is entirely possible to find expensive private schools and liberal families in any state in the union, it seems like folly to assume an applicant's political leanings or socioeconomic backgrounds based on their state of residence.
Espenshade and Radford were able to clarify what their book said in radio interviews and in articles published in Newsweek , Time, and elsewhere. Douthat, to his credit, gave the two researchers an opportunity to respond in a blog post. And a host of other bloggers jumped in to help set the record straight on what the research by Espenshade and Radford actually found.
Those seeking to refute Douthat, Neili, et. al. were themselves sometimes guilty of overreaching, however.
Take, for example, the assertion by Monica Potts of the American Prospect that whites "have a large advantage over people of color in almost every way possible in every area of life, regardless of income." While race in itself plays a role in determining educational opportunity, and race and class status are often interrelated due to current discrimination and the residual effects of discrimination in the past, the truth is that socioeconomic status is a bigger shaper of educational destinies than race these days. Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, attempt to quantify the influences of race and class on one's college admissions prospects through research presented in the new book Rewarding Strivers: Helping Low-Income Students Succeed in College. Their analysis found that being black, in itself, was associated with an average loss of 56 out of 1600 possible points on the combined verbal and math portions of the SAT. The gap between the poorest and wealthiest SAT takers, by contrast, was more than 780 points. Given such data, the notion that the child of two black Park Avenue physicians faces longer odds than a white child raised in Appalachian poverty is at least a little absurd.
More commonly, people have argued that low-income whites are under-represented at elite colleges simply because they are unqualified for admission or fail to apply. It certainly is true that many white people of modest means are not well prepared for elite colleges, and research has, indeed, shown that those who are prepared for admission to such colleges are less likely to apply to them than other students from wealthier backgrounds. But the research by Espenshade and Radford looked at students in the applicant pool and controlled for academic qualification in reaching the conclusion that low-income white students are less likely to gain admission. In focusing on low-income students who both applied and were qualified, they show the argument that such students are held back solely by a lack of initiative or academic ability to be both a lie and a slur.
Finally, several pundits made the argument that the entire debate over the influence of affirmative action and other preferences on elite college admissions is a distraction from the nation's real educational problems, the product of angst by a self-absorbed white upper-middle class. Heather Horn of The Atlantic offered a solid roundup of essays making such arguments.
Polls discussed in Color and Money do, indeed, suggest that whites in the upper-middle-class are more preoccupied with elite college admissions, and more likely to oppose affirmative action, than white people who are flat-out wealthy or of modest means. And, indeed, there is no question that the nation has many other educational and social problems it can be focused on, and probably needs to tackle if it is to bring about major improvement in access to elite colleges for all segments of society.
Nevertheless, there are many, very good reasons why all Americans, and not just members of the upper-middle-class, should be worried about the lack of socioeconomic diversity in our top colleges. Here are just a few:
- The lack of socioeconomic diversity at elite colleges and the nation's broader educational and social problems are interconnected. The former is caused largely the latter. It is entirely possible to be concerned about both issues, and we would do a lot to improve education broadly if we tried to ensure more young people from middle- or lower-income communities were prepared to go to top colleges.
- Top colleges play a huge role in determining the composition of our nation's leadership class, and the vast majority of Americans who are not rich are poorly served by a leadership class whose members come from wealthy backgrounds, went to college insulated from the rest of society, and are completely out of touch with middle- and working-class America's concerns.
- On a related note, shutting the non-wealthy out from elite colleges and the leadership class is a recipe for social unrest. Let us not forget that those who devised college affirmative-action preferences in the late 60s did so largely because a large number of the nation's cities were burning, and they believed that giving black Americans more access to elite colleges would send a signal to African Americans, generally, that they did not need to resort to rioting and other forms of violence to break down the barriers to their advancement.
On a final note, one has to wonder how many of the pundits who see no problem with the lack of socioeconomic diversity in elite colleges are themselves the products of such institutions, and have a self-interest in preserving admissions policies that worked in their favor and stand to favor their own children. Are they, perhaps, a little like the Wizard of Oz, in that they know recognize how much they stand to lose if others go snooping around behind the curtain surrounding elite college admissions, and see the mechanisms by which this nation's elite gains its power?