The Alleged “Rich Kid Problem”

Egalitarians never run out of things to complain about. Any statistical disparity between groups causes them to wring their hands and call for action to remedy the “inequity.”

The latest outbreak of egalitarian fever has to do with higher education in America, specifically the alleged “rich kid problem.” Jordan Weissman of The Atlantic recently penned a piece entitled “America’s Top Colleges Have a Rich-Kid Problem” in which he contended that our most prestigious colleges and universities should be doing much more to attract academically well-prepared students who come from relatively poor families. Because they don’t, the student bodies at those prestigious institutions are disproportionately composed of students from rich families who can pay the lofty tuitions the schools charge.

As a result of their failure to aggressively recruit for more socio-economic diversity, few students from non-wealthy families enroll in the “elites” and in turn that supposedly leads to a greater concentration of wealth than otherwise. As one writer who has been bitten by this bug laments, “poor kids don’t even get a chance.”

Stop. America has actual problems that impede people from relatively poor backgrounds from advancing to the extent of their abilities, but this is just making a mountain out of a molehill. The essence of the mistake the egalitarians are making is that they have confused the silly beauty-pageant rankings that purport to tell us which schools are the best with their educational effectiveness. The thinking goes, “The best colleges provide the best education and it’s a shame that they are keeping it just for the rich kids.” But that just ain’t so.

The truth of the matter is that undergraduates at many of the prestigious colleges and universities suffer from educational neglect. Their professors may be academic stars, but they seldom get much attention from them. What Professor Murray Sperber calls “the faculty/student non-aggression pact” is widespread – i.e., professors don’t demand a lot from the students and in return expect the students to leave them alone so they can concentrate on their research.

We call some schools “elite” but that’s not because students learn more than they would at one of our many non-elite institutions. Often, students (no matter their family background) make more academic progress at schools that offer more faculty involvement to compensate for their lack of fame.

And it emphatically is not the case that poor kids “don’t have a chance” unless they get to attend one of the big-name colleges. America is full of people who graduated from non-prestige colleges, or never graduated at all, such as David Karp, the entrepreneur behind Tumblr.

Furthermore, students from relatively poor families often have a hard time on campuses in big cities where costs are high (even if tuition is heavily discounted) and the distractions are numerous. That’s one of the key points in the recent book Paying for the Party, which I reviewed here.

If schools like Harvard decide to devote some of their accumulated wealth to identifying excellent students from poorer families and letting them attend at little or no cost, that’s fine. But let’s not pretend that getting to go to Harvard means the difference between a life of penury and a life of riches. People can succeed without having a degree from a prestige college and some will succeed better without one.

George Leef

George Leef is Director of Research for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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