Tag Archives: elite

‘Cutthroat Admissions’ at Elite Colleges?

The Chronicle Review is notorious for publishing outlandish opinion pieces more in the nature of white-hot rants than well-reasoned essays. A good case in point is Professor John Quiggin’s “A Vicious Duo” (September 16 – subscriber site), is one of the most overwrought pieces I’ve read there.

Quiggin, who teaches economics at the University of Queensland in Australia, contends that America is beset by the twin problems of rising inequality of income and “cutthroat admissions” at our elite colleges and universities. That combination allegedly leads to a “self-sustaining oligarchy.” Whatever superficial plausibility his argument might have — especially for people like himself who live outside the United States — vanishes when you comprehend the following points.

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Crazy U: Scenes from the System

There is a remarkable moment in Andrew Ferguson’s Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course on Getting His Kid into College, which just came out this week.  (The New York Times has an excerpt from the book here).  Ferguson and his son are in the middle of the application process, both of them dismayed and discomfited by the whole system.

They make a trip up to Cambridge for college night at Harvard, even though his son declares, “I’m not going to Harvard.”  (It’s ambiguous as to whether he doesn’t want to go there or doesn’t believe Harvard would ever be interested in him.)  They enter the admissions office and join a standing-room-only crowd of parents eager to hear from the deciders.  First, a video is shown announcing, “A mosaic of faces all call Harvard home.”  Young faces identify their home towns: “from Addis Ababa to Omaha,” Ferguson notes, “Baghdad to Boise, Manhattan to Moosepie, Montana.”  The point: Harvard students are just “ordinary folk.”
Tommy Lee Jones appears (roommate at Harvard: Al Gore), encouraging everyone to apply.  A nameless youth brushes his teach and the narrator says, “When FDR went to Harvard, he used the same sink.  Whose sink will you use?”

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The Rankings Will Always be Gamed

Trying to rank hundreds, if not thousands of colleges is obviously foolish, but this foolishness has consequences beyond supplying iffy advice to clueless shoppers. To the extent that potential enrollees take ratings seriously, institutions may be tempted to game the system and these tricks may well undermine education. To use Malcolm Gladwell’s illustration from Car and Driver, a car manufacturer can probably figure out the little gimmicks that magazine critics over-value and then accommodate these preferences even if they add zero to the car’s value.
Manipulating a rating will not push a third-rank school into the Ivy League, but in the mushy middle a few points can separate, say, 35 from 57. The temptation is to scam the system, regardless of the educational value. And what school can resist a little tinkering to leapfrog over rivals? So, if the rating formula stresses graduation rates, a few obscure bureaucratic adjustments—regular credit for what were once remedial courses, creating easy no-fail majors, allowing “Fs” to be expunged among similar ploys—can work wonders. Reed College refuses to participate in the U.S. News ranking, a wise choice given its low retention rate—hundreds of youngsters enroll in the mistaken belief that Reed is a sex and drug paradise, but most of these would-be hedonists flee almost immediately after encountering a hard-nosed take-no-prisoners freshman curriculum. Yet, this overly-generous admission generosity may benefit some high-potential under-achievers who might eventually flourish in a school of Reed’s intellectual caliber. If ratings were paramount and included retention, however, Reed would just play it safe and slip into staid conventionality.
And if average faculty compensation is the yardstick, any clever administrator can diddle the numbers. Just recruit expensive “star” talent who barely teach while “non-faculty” graduate students handle classroom instruction. Better yet, hire only those whose hefty salaries are paid by outside grants—get all the benefits of high salary compensation without any of the cost. Need more library holdings to impress the raters? No problem—buy cheaper paperbacks instead of expensive scholarly monographs. Need a reputation for “good teaching”? Since some raters use the internet to establish instructional “quality,” keep tough graders away from large required courses and watch ratings soar on ratemyprofessor.com.
My own favorite tactic for juicing “scholarly reputation” (at least in the social sciences) is to hire faculty who specialize in mathematical analysis and its variants like rational choice. These professors are amazingly productive and can quickly build a department’s disciplinary reputation where, as often the case, only publication volume counts. No matter that these professors teach gobbledygook to undergraduates who prefer history-rich accounts of WW II versus, say, a lecture on why country A attacked country B using the Prisoner’s Dilemma format. But don’t even think of hiring more substantively oriented adjuncts to compensate for these content-free courses—having too many part-timers, regardless of their backgrounds, especially if they lack doctorates, typically kills a school’s reputation among raters regardless of how much students learn.
This is a tail-wagging-the-dog problem—journalist outsiders, many of whom barely understand university life, shaping university policy by deciding what is academically important and even then, only using readily available crude information. That so many administrators happily defer to these ill-informed outsiders so as to up their rank a few notches is perhaps the most depressing feature of this foolishness.

Malcolm Gladwell and Those Shaky Rankings

As the author of a college guide that tries to help college-going students identify schools that would be a good “match” for them as individuals, I’ve always had three main gripes with the U.S. News & World Report rankings. First, you can’t quantify the really important factors that go into selecting the right college, such as the quality of student-faculty relations. Second, colleges manipulate the numbers to their own advantage. And finally, the rankings are premised on asking the wrong question. The issue is not what’s the “best” college in the abstract but what’s the best college for you?
At a time when it would seem that every conceivable argument to be made against the U.S. News rankings has been put forward, Malcolm Gladwell has now come along and, in his New Yorker riff on the topic, added some savory spice to the debate. Gladwell makes some conventional arguments. He rightly ridicules the proxies that the magazine uses for academic quality (“Do professors who get paid more money really take their teaching roles more seriously?”), and he joins the familiar chorus of complaints about the use of reputational surveys. College presidents are the last people I would ever consult in order to get a handle on the quality of a competing institution.

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Rituals Performed for the Elite

The U.S. News & World Report rankings of America’s “best” colleges and universities amount to nothing more than an annual ritual, a predictable coronation of entrenched wealth and power.
Even more importantly, for aspiring students and parents who hope to transcend their present class status, the yearly “guide” serves as the handmaiden to the elite. U.S. News rankings are like a public relations agency, a public persona standing at gates of admission to our “best” colleges, conveniently reminding aspiring Americans of the well-guarded paths to wealth and power.
Does anyone really believe that the students, parents and counselors at elite, mostly private, high schools pay any serious attention to the U.S. News rankings? Of course not. These schools and these families understand deeply how the system works and, especially, how to make the system work for them. They do not need U.S News to tell them which schools matter, and they follow the rankings with bemused disinterest.
That is not to say that the rankings are unimportant to elites. The annual ritual is a vital source of propaganda disguised by a pseudo-scientific calculation reminding our aspiring classes to “get in line and follow the rule” if they want a lottery chance at passing the gates. While the rankings purport to demonstrate to the public what separates good colleges form ordinary ones, the rankings are also the equivalent of the strict school marm, wagging her proverbial index finger at the strivers, the unwashed students and families who seek admission to the elite.
While the aspiring classes slavishly believe in its informative power, the rankings tell us little besides an institution’s wealth and prestige and position in the higher education hierarchy. According to U.S. News’s world view, a college or university is to be judged, not by what they actually do for students during their years on campus, such as how much chemistry, math, sociology and economics students actually learned while there.
Rather, in this upside-down world, colleges are judged by the “quality” of students they enroll. Quality, in essence, is measured by institutional selectivity – the percent of applicants who are accepted for admission. For the bulk of institutions in this universe, the direct correlate of selectivity is the average SAT score of entering freshman. The direct and powerful correlate of individual SAT scores is the cultural, educational and social capital which students acquire from their families. Families pass this human capital from generation to generation, and the so-called meritocracy is more than happy to oblige these privileges.
And so it goes, like a cascading river of wealth and power that obliterates all other considerations that bear on what higher education should mean in a democratic society. If one appreciates the status of inherited privilege, then let’s congratulate U.S. News on a job well done.

The Attack on Legacies

In every Marx Bros. movie, there occurs a moment when Harpo works himself up to a frenzy, hyperventilating, jumping up and down and crossing his eyes. These interludes never fail to beguile the viewer, even though they have nothing to do with the plot.
I was reminded of these Harpovian shenanigans when I came across Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admission (Richard D. Kahlenberg, Editor, Century Foundation , 304 pps). This a collection of essays expressing outrage at a practice, common to many first-, second- and third-tier colleges. These institutions have for decades (centuries in some cases) allowed underperforming high school students to be admitted to the freshman class because one of their parents was a graduate.
Manifestly this was unfair. Students with higher grades had been turned away because they didn’t have the advantage of a father or mother with an Ivy or Big Ten sheepskin. Yet the institutions of higher learning offered no apology for their autocratic ways; instead they presented a rationale. It was called Follow the Money. A prosperous parent was likely to make a generous donation to the place that allowed Junior to enter the hallowed halls, even though he failed geometry and had English SAT scores that placed him in the bottom third of his class. And since every school is always bemoaning its increasing debt, rising professorial salaries and benefits, and other fiscal responsibilities, what was wrong with welcoming a few “legacies” in order to pad the bottom line?

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Not Just Another College Ranking

Forbes has issued its 3rd annual College Rankings, delivering its crown to Williams College. Comparison to the U.S. News and World Report list is inevitable so let’s not delay in getting to it; this result, and most of the top 20 rankings on the Forbes list aren’t that dissimilar from the similar U.S. News list (when accounting for the fact that Forbes elides the distinction between the “liberal arts college” and “university” categories). This is unsurprising; a number of the factors in their ranking formula are not much dissimilar from the US News and World Report list; student debt, loan default rates, four-year degree completion rates, and the like. Any sensible list would feature these factors, and it’s a testament to the objective value of certain colleges that they place highly on multiple lists.

The Forbes list is distinctive, however, for its focus on results; its “ends-oriented” ranking, despite its similarities with U.S. News at the top of the scale, seems worlds different once venturing lower in the listing. On this list Whitman College in Washington and Centre College in Kentucky outrank Dartmouth; Colgate University stands many spots above Brown. It is a different measure with clearly different results.

Forbes‘ initial formula two years ago proved the results-focused ranking simpler said than done; in granting a quarter of its weight respectively to an enrollment adjusted appearance of graduates in “Who’s Who in America” and to aggregated RateMyProfessor rankings, Forbes deserved the numerous accusations of rankings ham-handedness it received. Happily, their worthy goal has acquired a more substantial statistical foundation in this iteration.

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Yes, Elite Colleges Are Biased Against Poor Whites

If damaging evidence against affirmative action turns up in a pro-affirmative action book, the author often explains it away as misunderstood or exaggerated. This has happened once again, this time to a book that made no splash when it was published last October, but drew attention here at Minding the Campus in criticism that spread to Ross Douthat’s column in The New York Times, Pat Buchanan’s syndicated column and now Time magazine.
The book is No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal, a careful study of admission practices at eight unnamed elite colleges by Princeton sociologist Thomas J. Espenshade and a research associate, Alexandria Walton Radford. Writing here on July 12th in an article headlined, “How Diversity Punishes Asians, Poor Whites and Lots of Others,” Russell K. Nieli of Princeton wrote that the book reported an immense admissions disadvantage to Asians (because admissions officers think there are already too many in the best colleges) and poor whites, who are penalized by favoritism, not only for blacks and Hispanics, but also for whites with middle-class and upper-class backgrounds. None of the criticism that greeted Nieli’s article has focused on the anti-Asian bias. All of it has dealt with the slim chances of poor whites at the most selective colleges.
Time magazine this week interviewed Espenshade about Douthat’s charges that elite education seems inclined to exclude the poor of red-state America. (The book does not mention red-state America at all.) Espenshade said this:

What I think he did was take a relatively minor finding and push an interpretation that goes beyond the bounds of available evidence. We have this finding that if students held leadership positions or won awards in career-oriented extracurricular activities when they were in high school, there was a slightly negative impact on their chances of being admitted to one of these top private schools. Now, what are these career-oriented activities? Douthat mentions as possibilities, and I don’t deny it, that it could be participating in a 4-H club or Future Farmers of America, but those aren’t the only types of activities that might fall into that broader category. It could include Junior ROTC. It could include co-op work programs. It could include a host of things. And these aren’t necessarily rural types of activities. My interpretation is that [having leadership positions or winning awards in career-oriented activities] suggests to admission deans that these folks are somewhat ambivalent about their academic future.

Espenshade is right that his critics missed the book’s clear point that membership in 4-H clubs, the Future Farmers of America and high school ROTC was not enough to harm the chances of applicants to the elite colleges—the problem is holding high office in these groups (as Senator Sam Brownback did by the way in FFA) or winning group awards, because admissions officers think that such achievements might indicate a lack of seriousness about higher education. But Espenshade goes too far in saying that “there was a slightly negative impact on their chances.” His book says on page 126 that “Excelling in career-oriented activities is associated with 60 or 65 percent lower odds of admission,” which seem more like crippling damage rather than a “slightly negative impact.” As Nieli wrote: “The lower-class whites proved to be all-around losers… Having money in the family greatly improved a white applicant’s admissions chances, lack of money greatly reduced it.” If you read the whole book, the prejudice of the elite schools against poor whites seems clear. As a political issue, this is a sure bet to gain ground.

Are You an ”Exclusive Scholar”? Just Sign Here

The New York Times reports today on a new marketing gimmick for colleges seeking to boost applications during this recession-plagued time when every tuition-paying body in a classroom counts: the fast-track application form that allows some high school seniors seeking admission to bypass the usual fees of $50 or so, the tedious filling out of information, and perhaps most significantly, the dreaded college essay.
Taking a lead from credit-card marketers, the express forms, typically packaged in a brightly colored envelope marked “Exclusive Scholar Applications,” “Distinctive Candidate Application” or something similar, come already filled in with the student’s name and other information (bought from College Board lists) so that all the applicant need do is affix a signature and head for a mailbox. Most of the application packets are produced and designed by the same firm, Royall & Company of Richmond, whose founder, Bill Royall, led direct-mail campaigns to potential donors to President Clinton. High-school counselors tend to hate the short-cut forms, which they say take advantage of “teenagers who don’t know what they want” from a college, as a counselor told New York Times reporter Jacques Steinberg, and cynics complain that the mass mailings to tens of thousands of young people when the college actually has only a few hundred freshman slots to fill, is an effort to game the U.S. News and World Report college rankings, which are in part based on “selectivity” (the ratio of admissions to applications) and the relative SAT scores of applicants. And although some well-known universities, such as Marquette and the University of Minnesota, have used the express application forms to claimed success, it’s clear that the nation’s most elite schools—the Harvards, Stanfords, and so forth—don’t need to bother with them in order to generate hundreds of applications per freshman slot, and that fast-track forms are yet another sign of the growing gap between the top tier of universities that have the luxury of being genuinely selective and the great mass of lesser-ranked institutions that don’t have that luxury and must scramble for students these days.

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Why Selectivity Is Important

While selective colleges and universities have become more selective, middling and lower-tier schools have become less selective, according to a new study reported on Inside Higher Ed. The study’s author, Stanford’s Caroline M. Hoxby, correctly noted that “typical college-going students in the U.S. should be unconcerned about rising selectivity. If anything, they should be concerned about falling selectivity, the phenomenon they will actually experience.” She added that “policymakers should take care not to enact policies based on the experience of a subset of colleges without considering their ramifications for colleges which have a very different experience.”
The clear policy ramifications from Hoxby’s study: institutions that currently can’t afford to spend the amount of money of students that we see from Ivy League schools ($92,000 per student, according to Hoxby) need to be more selective in both their admissions criteria and in their academic visions.
That finding certainly reflects my experience at the City University of New York, where over the past decade Chancellor Matthew Goldstein has relentlessly pressed for improving selectivity—through demanding that individual CUNY colleges meet higher SAT targets, or by establishing the widely praised CUNY Honors College. That Goldstein has accomplished all of this in the face of vitriolic opposition from CUNY’s faculty union makes his achievements all the more impressive.

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Too Many Talented Students?

When I came out of high school in 1977, I had a GPA of 3.1, a straight B average. My SAT scores were 710 Math and 590 Verbal, pretty good but not stellar. My entire college application process took a half hour. I sauntered into the counselor’s office at Torrey Pines High School north of San Diego.
“I need to apply to college,” I mumbled.
“Okay,” she said, pulling out a form. “Where do you want to go?”
“Well, I guess a UC school.” We didn’t have money for a private school, and the UC tuition back then was around $500 a year.
“Uh huh,” she replied. “Well, you have to rank three of them.”
I didn’t even know all of them by name, but I’d watched UCLA basketball and my father went to Berkeley for a few years when I was an infant.
“Let’s put UCLA first,” I said, “and Berkeley second, and any other one of them third.”
She did, then asked for my SAT scores, and that was it. I received a letter of admission to UCLA a few months later.
Today, if I applied to UCLA with those grades and scores, the counselor would laugh me out of the room. Admissions requirements have shot upward, students now padding resumes not only with 4.0 grades and 700+ scores on each part of the test, but also a passel of AP courses, summer internships, and troubling life experiences recounted in poignant detail on the personal statement in the application.

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A Success Story: Immigrant Blacks In Colleges

Yet another statistical study reveals that the high school-age offspring of black immigrant families enroll in America’s elite colleges at a vastly higher rate proportionate to their numbers than the offspring of U.S.-born blacks, and even at a slightly higher rate than whites.

This latest study, published in the journal Sociology of Education (abstract here), raises one more time the question of who exactly are supposed to be the beneficiaries of the race-based “diversity” goals that are part of the admissions policies at all selective colleges, whether Ivy League or in the top tier of public institutions such as the University of Michigan and the University of California at Berkeley.

The study, conducted by researcher Pamela Bennett of Johns Hopkins University and Amy Lutz of Syracuse University, using data from the National Educational Study of 1988, found, first of all, that among all U.S. high school graduates, the offspring of immigrant blacks were slightly more likely to head for college than whites (75.1 percent compared with 72.5 percent) and far more likely than native blacks, only 60.2 percent of whom enrolled in college after graduation. When it came to top-ranked, academically selective colleges, immigrant blacks enrolled as freshman at the rate of 9.2 percent, compared with 7.3 percent for whites and only 2.4 percent for native blacks.

Bennett’s and Lutz’s findings comported with those in a 2007 study published in the American Journal of Education noting that while immigrants or their offspring made up only about 13 percent of black people aged 18 and 19, they made up 27 percent of black students their age at selective public and private colleges and 41 percent of black students attending Ivy League schools.

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Accepted To Harvard Law? You Don’t Need Grades.

If you think that student life at an ultra-elite law school is a page ripped out of The Paper Chase—one long, frighteningly competitive grade grub under the icy eye of a clone of the movie’s fictional Prof. Charles W. Kingsford Jr.—think again. At Yale Law School, grades have been strictly optional since the 1960s (students can opt to take classes for credit/no credit), and if you do choose to have your professor award you a symbol of your academic achievement or lack thereof, it’s neither a letter grade (A, A-, B+, etc.) nor a number based on a scale of 1-1-100 that can be easily translated into a letter. Instead, thanks to a student rebellion during the Age of Aquarius, there are only four grades at Yale: H for honors (for the top 30 percent or so of the class), P for pass (for almost everyone else), LP for low pass (for those who spent more time sampling the beer selection at Rudy’s than the readings in their casebook), and F for failure (for those who never made it out of Rudy’s to class).
And now, both Stanford Law School, in an announcement in May, and Harvard Law School, in an announcement on Sept. 28, have decided to follow Yale’s lead—with a few minor modifications–in vague and minimalist grading. Never again at Harvard will a Kingsford fix his withering gaze upon a hapless student who gave a less-than-brilliant performance and intone, “Here is a dime. Take it, call your mother, and tell her there is serious doubt about you ever becoming a lawyer.”
The idea at Yale Law School seems to be of the same general justification that has underlain rampant grade inflation over the past few decades for undergraduates at the Ivies and other elite colleges. If you’re smart enough—or maybe even just interesting enough—to get into our top school, why should you have to worry about grades? You’re already brilliant! Fine-tuned, competition-focused law school grades, the thinking goes, are for second-echelon institutions whose students have to demonstrate on paper that they’re as qualified as Yalies to compete for high-paying jobs at prestigious law firms or coveted clerkships on the U.S. Supreme Court and elsewhere. As the Yale Law School admissions office states on its website: “People do not get into Yale solely because of their GPA and LSAT combination. People get into Yale because of who they are and what they have done. The students bring such diverse backgrounds to the law school that one learns from them and benefits from their existence just as much as one does from the faculty.” Yale proudly declares that not only are grades optional, but it has eliminated class rankings.

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Still Forgotten: Low Income Students At Selective Colleges

Despite a great flurry of activity to expand financial aid at selective colleges over the past several years, a new study by the Chronicle of Higher Education reported this gloomy bottom line: “Top Colleges Admit Fewer Low-Income Students.” As someone who has worked for more than a decade to push colleges to enroll more economically disadvantaged kids of all races, the news was disappointing, though not altogether surprising. For years, elite colleges have assembled freshmen classes that include upper-middle class and wealthy students of all races and declared themselves to be diverse. New financial aid policies alone were unlikely to change that pattern.

The Chronicle study found that the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants declined at the wealthiest 75 private and 39 public colleges and universities between the 2004-05 and 2006-07 academic years. In the 75 private institutions with the largest endowments, 13.1% of undergraduates in 2006-07 received Pell Grants, which typically go to students from families earning less than $40,000 a year, down from 14.3% two years earlier. In 39 public institutions with endowments of $500 million or more, 18% were Pell Grant recipients in 2006-07compared with 19.6% two years earlier.

The news is particularly troubling given the high profile efforts announced in recent years by some 40 top colleges and universities to provide more generous financial aid to struggling families. Why did less, rather than more, economic diversity follow? The primary reason is that aid policies are only part of what drives enrollment. In order to receive aid, low-income and working class students must first be admitted. Because such students often attend lousy schools, even highly talented and hard working students – who have tremendous potential – don’t look as good on paper as their more privileged colleagues. Research finds that while colleges and universities give substantial preferences to under-represented minorities (blacks, Latinos and Native Americans) and other groups, they give basically no preference to economically disadvantaged students, despite claims to the contrary.

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Black Success, Black Failure

Confirming what college administrators have known for years, Education Sector has released a report based on U.S. Department of Education figures detailing huge gaps between the college graduation rates of white students and those of blacks. The gap (measured by failure to graduate within six years from a four-year institution) averages about 20 percent, although it can soar in excess of 40 percent in a few cases.

These are dispiriting figures, but they need to be approached in context. First of all, as the report notes, only slightly over half – 57 percent – of students of any race who enroll in four-year colleges manage to make it to graduation within six years. This figure suggest that a traditional-style uninterrupted college education isn’t for everyone – and in fact many dropouts (although their numbers aren’t tracked in the Education Sector report) finish their degrees part-time or after several years in the work-force, as the burgeoning number of institutions devoted to part-time education indicates). White students do fare better in traditional education, according to a study published last year in the journal Blacks in Higher Education: 63 percent of whites graduate in six years, compared to only 43 percent of blacks (although the percentage of graduating black students has been ticking upwards over the past few years, the study noted).

Blacks who attend elite private universities – Harvard et al., – have extremely high graduation rates that approach those of whites, but that is probably to be expected, because those schools have highly selective admissions standards for all their students and typically graduate more than 90 percent of them. And it is safe to say that the blacks at the top private schools are strongly motivated academically and have few distracting financial worries thanks to scholarships or their upper-middle-class families.

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Do Elite Universities Exclude The Poor?

In an Op-Ed in last Monday’s New York Times, UC-Berkeley sociologist Jerome Karabel painted an alarming picture of our elite universities as institutions that systematically discriminate against poor and middle-class students. In Karabel’s words, these schools are “serving less as vehicles of upward mobility than as transmitters of privilege from generation to generation.” This is a depressing analysis of our top academic institutions, but it also happens to be a false one.
While it is true that economically disadvantaged students sometimes get the short shrift in elite college admission, it is equally true that Karabel has used highly biased numbers to argue his case. When the statistical flaws are corrected, a truer picture emerges, one that suggests that the economic diversity at our top colleges is far greater than class warriors such as Karabel would admit.

Most of Karabel’s data in the op-ed comes from a single 2004 study done by the liberal Century Foundation. While the actual economic backgrounds of the students in the survey is somewhat difficult to determine because the study combined economic and non-economic factors, it is virtually certain that the study’s claims are dramatically exaggerated. To understand why, consider the similar claims Karabel made in his recent book, The Chosen.

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