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.
The Chosen is a sometimes-engaging book about the history of admissions discrimination at Harvard, Yale and Princeton. But while The Chosen often mined useful historical information, Karabel failed to turn his historical research into insights about the state of the contemporary academy. Several times in The Chosen, Karbel made reference to the very low percentage of economically-disadvantaged students in highly selective schools such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. (At Princeton, Karabel tells us, only 10% of students come from families with incomes in the bottom half of the U.S. average.) But these statistics bear little relation to the actual economic status of the families of students at elite schools relative to other Americans.
The studies cited by Karabel in The Chosen usually compare the family economic background of students in elite colleges to the U.S. median family income. However the true median income figure for an appropriate comparative group of U.S. families is much higher than the median income used in these studies. For example, the median family income in the U.S. in 2005 was $56,194 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But the median family income for a family headed by a 45-54 year old (roughly the average age of the parents of today’s college student) was 72,881, which is 30% higher.
But even this underestimates the true relevant median family income because it ignores geography. America’s state-by-state median family income ranges from $78,154 in Connecticut to $42,805 in Mississippi – an enormous gap. Connecticut has the highest household income in the U.S. New Jersey is 2nd, and Massachusetts is 4th. All have incomes more than 32% above the national average for families. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, arguably the three most historically prestigious schools in the U.S, are sitting in the richest states in the union. The Northeast, home the the entire Ivy league and a disproportionate number of other prestigious universities, has a family income of 15% above national averages. Even using this very conservative 15% regional premium would bring the expected median income of families to approximately 84,000. And while Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are national universities, like almost all universities from Oklahoma State to Wofford they tend to attract many more students from nearby.
But even this number needs further adjustment because families with children generally earn more than equivalently situated families without children. This is not surprising as parents of these children know that they need to earn more to support them. Again, getting precise numbers presents a number of methodological difficulties, but a tentative but reasonable assumption would be $3,000 more, bringing the correct comparison set to approximately $87,000 in income. That is to say, if Harvard, Yale and Princeton just picked students from completely random American households with college age children, adjusting for geography, they would enroll students with median family incomes of around $87,000 a year.
This $87,000 number is approximately 57% higher than the “median” family income that is breathlessly cited by scholars and activists such as Karabel in attempting to show how economically unrepresentative our elite universities are. Using Karabel’s own data from The Chosen, 30% of Harvard freshman in 2004 came from families making less than $100,000 per year an amount close to our adjusted median. And starting in 2005, Harvard, Yale, the University of Virginia, the University of North Carolina, and other top public and private institutions announced aggressive plans to reduce or eliminate tuition, room and board for less affluent families, significantly increasing their percentages of lower-income students. At Harvard, the year after they first implemented this plan, the number of entering students from families making less than $60,000 jumped an additional 24%,. Today at schools from Yale to Stanford to Harvard families making $45,000, $50,000 or in Harvard’s case, even $60,000 in income now do not have to contribute any money at all to their children’s tuition or room and board. But Karabel conveniently forgets to mention any of these well-publicized programs in his Op-Ed.
While America’s elite schools could be even more economically diverse, they are already doing a much better job of enrolling low and middle income students than they are being given credit for. And in a competitive quest for top students, they are recruiting as aggressively as possible throughout the income spectrum. Of course, getting rid of race-based affirmative, action, which numerous studies show tends to help the children of Mexican executives and African-American doctors rather than working-class students, would do a lot to free up spots for more economically disadvantaged students. It is ironic that the only time Karabel can bring himself to mention the words “affirmative action” in his editorial is when referring to admissions advantages given to children of alumni and major donors. Acknowledging that race-based affirmative action might be a bad idea that crowds out deserving poor students in favor of promoting skin-deep diversity would make more sense in the context of Karabel’s overall argument. But doing so would require Karabel to slaughter one of the sacred cows of liberal academics everywhere.
Karabel closes his piece in the Times by arguing that a instituting a partial admissions lottery at elite schools for students who passed a minimum qualifying threshold would “undermin[e] the dubious assumption that the applicants admitted are those with the most merit.” Yet Karabel offers no evidence to support the assertion that the most meritorious students are not already being selected.
If Karabel really wanted to uncover a national scandal about university admissions, he might turn his sociological talents to looking at the numerous ways in which elite universities such as his own, though moral permissiveness and far-left politics, tune their admissions procedures, definitions of merit, and campus cultures to exclude and drive away talented conservatives. It’s a subject that I could provide him with hours of material on. However, one suspects that this sort of investigation would be unappealing to Karabel and his soulmates at the New York Times. They would much rather perpetuate the myth of economically exclusionary elite universities than to acknowledge that our top schools are open to the most talented students from a wide variety of economic backgrounds.