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.

John Leo

John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

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