‘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.

First, there isn’t anything vaguely resembling an “oligarchy” in the U.S. There are many wealthy people, of course, but they don’t comprise a ruling set bound on holding on to wealth and power. Often, they’re in conflict.

Success Not Guaranteed by Name Colleges

Second, the so-called elite American colleges and universities are not the tools of that imaginary oligarchy, keeping out all but the children of the rich in order to protect the oligarchy. Could Quiggin be unaware of the mania for “diversity” that grips most of our higher education officials? Most American colleges and universities are ecstatic when they can enroll students who are not from “overrepresented” white or Asian families. True, the mania for “socio-economic diversity” has yet to catch fire and we don’t have hidden quotas for students from low-income households, but most schools eagerly accept them if they come close to meeting the academic standards for admission. The notion that our “elite” colleges bar the gates to “non-elite” students isn’t within light years of the truth.

Third–and this point completely collapses Quiggin’s house of cards–it is not the case that graduating from an “elite” school is a guarantee of success in life. Students don’t get a superior education in them; often, undergraduate education at those institutions is markedly inferior to that at “lesser” schools. 

Among many others who have made that point is Thomas Sowell. In his book Inside American Education, he wrote, “Although Berkeley is one of the leading Ph.D.-granting institutions in the country… a smaller proportion of its own undergraduates go on to receive Ph.D.s than do the alumni of dozens of other institutions, including many small colleges like Wabash, Eckerd, Kalamazoo and Occidental…. Berkeley is the flagship of the University of California system, in terms of world-class research prestige, but virtually no one believes its undergraduate education is top-notch.”

One reason why is that most of the “elite” institutions put faculty research far above teaching. Consequently, professors tend to slough off on teaching. At large research institutions, what Professor Murray Sperber calls “the faculty/student non-aggression pact” is commonplace. That is, professors who are absorbed in their research make an implicit deal with the students: the course won’t be too demanding and grades will be high, but don’t expect much of my attention. If a student wants high-quality instruction from professors who carefully evaluate and critique his work, the so-called elite colleges are the least likely places to find it.

Fourth, Quiggin asserts that the unfortunate students from poorer families who are kept out of “elite” schools have to settle for lower-tier institutions that are “failing badly.” That charge is based on the low graduation rates and extended times to completion that one finds at those institutions. Moreover, Quiggin says, degrees from lower-tier schools “do not, in general, provide a route into the upper end of the income distribution.”

The notion that the school is “failing” if it doesn’t have a good graduation rate is one commonly heard, but mistaken. Colleges don’t graduate students; students either do the necessary work to graduate or they don’t. Every school prefers to have students remain enrolled and progressing toward degrees. The difference is that while “elite” schools attract mostly well-prepared and highly motivated students, other schools are left with many academically weak and disengaged students.

Students who do the work required graduate, whether at an elite or a non-elite institution. Once they are in the work world, those who went to “non-elite” colleges almost never find that a barricade to success. In a very few fields – the legal profession is one – credential snobbery can be an obstacle to people without elite degrees, but in most of the business world, success has little or nothing to do with academic degrees.  Many very successful companies were begun by people who don’t have an “elite” degree, and sometimes who have no degree at all.

College credentials are not destiny. Contrary to Professor Quiggin’s assumption, graduating from one of the so-called elite institutions is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for success. His proposed solutions for his imaginary problem would be ineffectual if not counterproductive.

One idea is for the elite schools to change their admission policies by setting admission quotas for students from lower-income families. He doesn’t think that will work, however. “But in the absence of broader structural change, “ he writes, “those efforts will be overwhelmed by the economic and social forces pushing in the opposite direction.”

We never find out just what “broader structural change” Quiggin has in mind or why admission policies giving preferences to lower-income students will be “overwhelmed.” No matter. There is a sound reason to dismiss this idea. Students aren’t fungible. Weak ones from poorer families won’t suddenly improve and be able to keep up with stronger classmates if given preference in admissions at an elite college.  Those students may not graduate at all, or if they do, often it is only by virtue of taking a weak course of study. That makes them worse off, not better.

Quiggin also advocates the expansion of “elite” universities. The trouble with that idea, as I noted above, is that there is nothing special, either educationally or in terms of career opportunities, about the colleges and universities we think of as elite.

I am not unsympathetic to the problem that lies at the heart of Quiggin’s complaint – inequality. Inequality per se doesn’t bother me and I don’t believe that it’s indicative of a national sickness that, as he notes, “1 percent of the population reaps 25 percent of national income.” Some people earn vast amounts of money through production and trade; I see no ground for complaining about that. 

Others, however, earn vast amounts through political pull. That really is a problem and there are good grounds for wanting to close off that avenue to riches. Putting more students from poor families through elite colleges won’t do anything to solve that problem, however.

Helping poor people become wealthier is the most direct way of reducing the income gap and doing that calls for elimination of the many obstacles they find in their way. Not having a Harvard degree is not an obstacle to a poor city dweller, but ineffective public schools, voluminous laws and regulations that impede small businesses, and a political culture that encourages people to look to government for advancement are.

Changing the admissions policies of elite colleges won’t do a thing to solve the root problems of inequality. Egalitarians like Professor Quiggin should aim at real ones.

George Leef

George Leef is director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

6 thoughts on “‘Cutthroat Admissions’ at Elite Colleges?

  1. Statistics rebuke your opinions time and time again. It IS a fact that only 78% of high achievers from low income homes are admitted to elite schools, which is at the same rate as the students from rich families with the poorest academic standards. To add insult to injury, just about all of the highest, most prestigious jobs usually fall to those who graduate from the elite colleges and universities. I partly agree with your comment that “there is nothing special, either educationally or in terms of career opportunities, about the colleges and universities we think of as elite.” Nothing special is right, or I wouldn’t have to use my community college training to re-educate “elite” college graduates on basic engineering, math and physics. However, they do get paid more… ” or in terms of career opportunities..” yeah, right!

  2. You apparently missed the evidence I cited concerning the wage premium. My main concern was with the premium for four-year over two-year schools, but there is ample evidence that graduates of elite schools (in the context of our dispute, state flagships and high status private schools) command a substantial premium over second-tier state universities and other low-status schools and that, within the elite class, the Ivies generate a substantial premium over the rest.
    It’s often argued that the premium reflects connections rather than learning, and you may be claiming this, but that doesn’t affect my argument in the least.
    The elite schools are providing an entree to the top 1 per cent for which parents and students are willing to pay dearly and take on potentially crippling debts. Whether that entree reflects what you know or who you know makes no difference to the ferocity of the struggle.

  3. Prof. Quiggin complains that my response lacks empirical evidence to support my position. Go back and read his original and you will find nothing but supposition that “elite” colleges provide superior education. There is no evidence whatever given for that, the keystone of the whole argument. I submit that no such evidence exists. At least I gave the view of one well known observer of American higher education to the effect that students at these supposedly elite schools often receive weaker instruction than do students at schools considered non-elite. I could easily provide other assessments to the same effect. Is there any evidence or authority he can provide to the contrary? Does anyone claim that the “elite” institutions generally give their students better instruction than do others?

  4. Protesting too much? I was struck by the claim that references to a developing oligarchy in the US were “outlandish”, “overwrought” and could only be explained by the ignorance of an outside.
    I don’t suppose the observation that the term is routinely used on the left of US politics (for example, by Nancy Pelosi) would lead you to change this view. So how about David Brooks, who uses the term the term to describe how Republicans see “nterlocking oligarchy of politicians, academics, journalists, consultants and financiers ” ruining the country. It seems I have plenty of outlandish and overwrought company.
    As for the rest of your response, it is notable for a near-complete absence of empirical evidence. You manage one unsourced and context-free piece of anecdotal evidence (about Berkeley and Kalamazoo) in the entire piece.

  5. John Quiggin’s point, which admittedly is a little questionable, would be effectively countered by evidence that the top, say, 5 percent of America did not attend elite colleges more than the rest of the population. You have not done that.
    “It is not the case that graduating from an ‘elite’ school is a guarantee of success in life,” is pretty weak evidence.

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