In Rebuttal: Yes, Socioeconomic Status Should Matter in Admission to Selective Colleges

Last week, George Leef of the James G. Martin Center took issue with Kenin M. Spivak’s article in Minding the Campus that advocated normalizing college admissions data for socioeconomic status. Leef’s thesis was that students denied admission to selective colleges have not been harmed.

Last year, I wrote “Socioeconomic Status—The Good Kind of Affirmative Action?” for Minding the Campus. My article laid out the ethical, legal, and practical problems with race-based affirmative action and its pernicious mutation, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). Because I strongly believe in creating equal opportunities—not outcomes—for disadvantaged Americans, I advocated the normalizing of holistic college admissions scoring to remedy inaccuracies.

Last week, George Leef, editorial director of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, published a response on the Martin Center website, disagreeing with my conclusions. Leef and I often contribute to the National Review, and I can’t remember the last time I disagreed with him. This time, however, he errs.

First, a quick recap of my views:

The majority of Asian, black, Hispanic, and white Americans oppose the use of race in admissions decisions (see here, here, and here), but most Americans favor consideration of family economic circumstances.

Regardless of race, children from poor and low-income families typically face many obstacles due to their socioeconomic status. They often attend inferior schools, and have less time for homework because of jobs or chores. They are less likely to benefit from two actively involved parents and receive, on average, less guidance and assistance. Low-income students are one-third as likely to take advanced placement courses, in part because their schools do not offer these courses, and they are half as likely to take ACT/SAT prep courses. They also tend to have more family obligations than affluent students.

Students from families in the bottom 25% of incomes comprise only three percent of enrollment in our most competitive colleges, while those from the top 25% comprise 72%. These biases can be eliminated without preferences or the rejection of better qualified applicants.

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation is America’s leading provider of scholarships for low-income, high-achieving students. In a 2016 study, the Foundation discovered that, within a measurable range, high-achieving, low-income children, who have lower GPAs and SAT scores than affluent children and who receive lower scores for non-academic factors from admissions offices, nonetheless perform at the same level as affluent students once in college, both in terms of grades and graduation rates.

Selective colleges can and should “normalize” scoring to better predict performance, with the traditional goal of selecting the applicants who are most likely to succeed. Adjusting data so that it accurately predicts college performance does not entail the social engineering, preferences, or quotas of race-based affirmative action or DEI.

[Related: “Socioeconomic Status—The Good Kind of Affirmative Action?”]

Now, the core of Leef’s disagreement:

The case for socio-economic preferences hinges on the assumption that “selective” education means better education and that is a very dubious assumption. Classes in English or math or history aren’t taught better at, say, Harvard than at a less prestigious school such as Bridgewater State. They might even be better at Bridgewater, since the faculty members there are apt to be far more accessible than at Harvard.…

Don’t “selective” schools do a superior job of getting students into good careers? Not necessarily. In his book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll BeFrank Bruni points to many individuals who attended little-known colleges yet became very successful.…Furthermore, graduating from an elite institution is no guarantee of success.…

Here’s how Spivak envisions socio-economic preferences working. College admission officers would adjust the SAT and ACT scores of applicants from poor families.…Doing that “adjusting” means a lot of guesswork. Exactly how much higher would the student’s score be if it weren’t for the disadvantages of poverty? It’s impossible to say.…The result of all of this “normalizing” and subjective assessments is certain to be the admission of students who are significantly below the class average in academic ability.

Leef sees perfection as the enemy of progress. That something might occasionally be false does not mean that it is not nearly always true. We do not abandon automobiles or airplanes because they occasionally crash. We do not deny patients heart or brain surgery because a non-surgical intervention occasionally brings relief. We play the odds, and where the odds are overwhelmingly stacked in one direction that violates none of America’s guiding principles or laws and, to the contrary, gives life to American exceptionalism, meritocracy, and opportunity, we must not hesitate because there will be an occasional exception.

If Leef is right that a degree from a top college is immaterial, then an error that denies admission to a better qualified candidate also is immaterial. He can’t have it both ways—decrying my goals as unnecessary, while bemoaning the potential consequences of a wrong admissions decision. I know that mistakes may occur, particularly in the first years as admissions offices refine their algorithms to achieve the best correlation to academic performance. Contrary to Leef’s assertion, this is not guesswork. Considerable data already exists and adjustments can be made annually. It is not a compelling objection that while norming replaces numerous less qualified applicants with better qualified applicants, there also might be occasional mistakes. The number of improved admission decisions will vastly exceed the number of errors. The net result will be an academically superior class, the goal of a meritocracy.

Leef is wrong that education at elite colleges is not superior. The quality of a college education is largely determined by the quality of faculty and students, the size of the average class, and for STEM, the availability of vital resources. Professors in selective colleges are more involved in research projects, interact more with other leading academics and elites, and are more likely to obtain experience and relationships from high-ranking government service, significant business activities, and board membership. Not all students are equally gifted. The brightest students are more curious. They can absorb advanced information with greater speed, comprehension, depth, and complexity than the average student. The hugely disproportionate concentration of these students in selective colleges, particularly elite colleges, is indisputable.

For STEM, few small, undercapitalized colleges can approach the resources or internship opportunities available in major research universities.

Of course, there likely are some social science classes in little-known colleges that are better than the same courses in the most highly ranked colleges. However, overwhelmingly, the exchanges in elite colleges among America’s most revered faculty and its smartest students, whether in class, in dormitories, or at student activities, produce insights, nuances, and an overall experience that can seldom be approached in an average college.

To assert that, generally, the quality of education in unselective colleges, let alone small, undercapitalized, unknown colleges, is comparable to Princeton, Columbia, Harvard, and MIT, the four most highly ranked colleges in 2022 according to U.S. News and World Report, is the same progressive dogma that seeks to end advanced math courses for gifted children. I concede that I sound like an elitist. Sometimes broken clocks and elitists are right.

[Related: “Social Equity and the Re-Segregation of Higher Education”]

Entirely separate from quality of education, it does a disservice to every high school student in America who might be able to gain admission to a top college, particularly the most prestigious colleges, to think that he or she is equally likely to succeed with a degree from a small rural college. Perhaps the aggregate number of successful people who graduated from the top 10 or 25 universities is less than the aggregate number of successful people who did not. So what? It is incontrovertible that the percentage of successful people from elite colleges is vastly higher than the percentage from other colleges.

The examples are limitless in nearly every profession. For example, of the last 10 U.S. presidents, only three attended colleges that were not among America’s most prestigious. Of 10 current or incoming Supreme Court Justices, all but one attended an elite college. Five of the six most recent U.S. attorney generals attended college at Columbia (Mukasey, Holder, and Barr) or Harvard (Lynch and Garland). Promoted as the most diverse administration in American history, the Biden cabinet is filled with graduates of elite universities. Forty-one percent of senior or mid-level Biden White House staffers have Ivy League degrees.

Though only 11% of Fortune 100 CEOs attended Ivy League colleges (Ivy League colleges account for about one percent of college degrees), CEOs also attended other prestigious colleges. According to Pitchbook, college graduates of Stanford, UC Berkeley, MIT and Harvard are the most likely to obtain venture capital funding, three Ivy League colleges are in the top 10, and all Ivy League colleges are in the top 25.

Whether the advantage that graduates of elite colleges have is based on their intelligence, the quality of their education, who they meet at their school, their access to alumni networks, or employers’ desire to impress, the numbers are unassailable. To be clear, not all elite colleges are in the Ivy League or are part of large universities. Our military academies, Amherst, Williams, Claremont colleges, and Hillsdale, among others, provide superb education to committed, engaged students. Each of these colleges is ranked among the top 50 national liberal arts colleges.

Leef’s arguments on mismatch also miss the point. Studies show that underqualified candidates perform better in less competitive schools and that students at such schools may even do better in their careers, though the latter conclusion falls apart when looking at the most elite colleges. Mismatch applies to race-based affirmative action and to legacy admits. It has no applicability to socioeconomic admissions based on normalizing admission data to better correlate with performance. It is tautological that norming data does not generate mismatch.

The data identified by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and others demonstrates that the most capable applicants are not necessarily those with the highest test scores or those who rank the highest on other admission standards. Normalizing data finds the best qualified applicants, not underqualified applicants.

Helping financially disadvantaged Americans of all backgrounds achieve their potential by taking the time and care to admit the brightest and the best to our elite colleges also helps America. Impartial, reliable, holistic admissions strengthens our meritocracy and embodies American exceptionalism.

Image: Tim Alex, Public Domain

Kenin M. Spivak

Kenin M. Spivak, a lifetime member of the National Association of Scholars, is founder and chairman of SMI Group LLC, an international consulting firm and investment bank. Spivak was chairman of two publishers and of the Editorial Board of the Knowledge Exchange Business Encyclopedia. He regularly contributes to National Review, The American Mind, and other publications. He received an A.B., M.B.A., and J.D. from Columbia University.

9 thoughts on “In Rebuttal: Yes, Socioeconomic Status Should Matter in Admission to Selective Colleges

  1. There are numerous issues here. While economics makes more sense than race as an admissions factor, indiscriminate use of this criterion also ends up being unfair. For example — and this is already an issue re financial aid — some people are in a position to hide the bulk of their income and assets, while others are not. For example, there may be wealthy grandparents, but the parents spend their money as fast as it comes in — knowing they have the grandparents to fall back on for their kids’ tuition and their retirement — so the family appears to have modest income and assets even though it is wealthy. Some people with businesses also engage in financial shenanigans.

    More fundamentally: If you’re trying to admit the most qualified people, aren’t students who received better educations better qualified to succeed? Will that poor kid with mediocre test scores and a degree from an easy high school really be able to thrive in a highly competitive environment?

    Most fundamentally: The author needs to do a little research as to why students from top colleges are so overrepresented at elite levels, and not just make assumptions. There are two main reasons, and they involve neither teaching quality nor “contacts,” which are rarely useful. One is that in some high-profile fields — such as government/academia/newsmedia related — elite degrees possess tremendous cachet and thus enhance hiring and promotion. But the bigger issue actually has nothing to do with the college at all. It’s that unusually high shares of students attending elite colleges come from very wealthy and well-connected families. This impacts future wealth and status far more than anything else. Studies have found that if you track middle-class students with similar high school achievement who go to elite private colleges and to typical flagship state colleges, the outcomes (measured in future income level) are identical. No measurable economic benefit is conferred by the elite degree.

  2. Mr. Spivak cites the Jack Kent Cook Foundation as showing that “high-achieving, low-income children, who have lower GPAs and SAT scores than affluent children and who receive lower scores for non-academic factors from admissions offices, nonetheless perform at the same level as affluent students once in college, both in terms of grades and graduation rates.” If the students have poor GPAs and SAT scores, how exactly Does Mr. Spivak know they are “high-achieving”? He provides no explanation. The study from the Jack Kent Cook Foundation, however, does. The study defines “high achieving” students as “those students who scored in the top academic quartile on a 10th grade reading and mathematics assessment administered as part of the Education Longitudinal Study and who graduated from high school.” Presumably colleges following this proposal will require students to show that they fit into this category by submitting test scores. So despite Mr. Spivak’s pose of offering a groundbreaking proposal, his proposal amounts to replacing one standardized test with another. Perhaps the reading and mathematics assessment is better than the SAT, perhaps not, but this hardly sounds revolutionary.

  3. Social engineering is social engineering, no matter the hat worn, the shape of the box it comes in, the nature of the ‘good intentions’ motivating ‘the man behind the curtain’ who’s pulling the strings and adjusting the world to nudge it closer to the vision of the Great & Powerful Oz.

    Let us have none of that please.

    When the race is run and the finish line crossed, we do not award our medals and ribbons AFTER adjusting the finish times to ‘normalize’ the whatevers. Oh, Bob was wearing bad shoes; he had a blister. Steve comes from a very poor family. Eddie has to work after school. Ronald’s legs are shorter so he has to pump them twice as hard! Let us ‘fix’ the outcomes to let “disadvantaged Americans of all backgrounds achieve their potential”!


    The fact that I was outplayed in tryouts means I don’t have a place on the team. If I’m outperformed in High School, top schools will choose the better candidate. If I don’t sell more widgets than the other guy, the other guy gets the bonus. Life is competition, everywhere and always. We all have the opportunity to win in first place or end in 2nd, 3rd, or 35th.

    But, the thing is, there’s always another race, another opportunity to push yourself that much further, to accomplish that much more. Nor is the fact that ‘the other guy’ won the previous race a guarantee that he will win this one, or the next, or the one after that. Equally there is no guarantee that your win is ‘due’…or that the results of all the races will — in a very socially-justicey sense — balance out this week, next week, or ever. They won’t; not in this world or this life. So you’d better try your damndest NOW.

    But the fact that life is not fair (didn’t all our mothers tell us that?), does not mean that if you don’t go to Harvard or clerk for SCOTUS that your life is a failure or somehow ‘not good’. It simply means that the grass over on some other side is a little big greener….and the grass on your side, that much greener then the grass over there.

    So no, for the Great & Powerful Oz (the millions of them out there) who wish to place — with all good intentions — their own well-meaning thumb upon the scales of any given ‘weighing’ to compensate for what they feel is one disadvantage too many — please don’t. To win the blue ribbon because someone adjusted my race time is not winning.

    And as we’ve seen for generations, the use of ‘separate standards’ for ‘special people’ to plop them into the same winner’s circle as those who did not need those ‘lower hurdle rates’ casts a large and pernicious shadow upon everyone so ‘handled’. This is the curse of every so-called ‘affirmative action’.

    The truth is, we really don’t know best what’s best for everyone. And the world would be a better place if we actually, with some humility, recognized that truth.

  4. Mr. Spivak is either uninformed or naive. Yes, internship opportunities and research resources in STEM are more available at top ranked research universities. But so what? That is completely irrelevant if the students you admit are academically unprepared. The less capable students are not the ones being picked for those internships and research assistant positions. Hence, admitting them accomplishes nothing.

    The data from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation is highly suspect. Students who are highly capable do not do poorly on standardized tests or other academic standards. Sure, there are exceptions, but wise decisions and policies are rarely made if you base them on the 3-sigma cases.

    1. What no one is saying is that the unqualified students that are already in selective institions — both legacy and affirmative retribution admits — are successful on the other end for the same reasons.

      The same family connections or skin color gets them hired and promoted.

      Hence it looks like they benefited from attending the college while they actually benefited from what it was that got them into the college in the first place.

      And further messing up the statistics are the students admitted on merit notwithstanding their status in the other categories.

  5. I’m somewhat in favor of giving lower SES students some kind of break — a modest allowance for SAT/ACT scores, for starters. The rub is in determining how much is enough, and too much. A standard deviation is clearly way excessive, in my book. One does nobody any favors by letting in students to hypercompetitive schools and seeing them drown. It happens in less competitive schools, too. Really, it is damaging, even vicious.

    It should not be impossible to figure out how to give a “diamond in the rough” a fair break. But in practice, it is very difficult to get it right in this society.

    It would certainly be nice if more of our supreme court justices, presidents, high-level cabinet members came from “ordinary” schools. But does being a special admit to one of these places really give that much of a leg-up? It won’t turn you into a Bush, or a Gore, or a Kerry. It certainly wouldn’t have made Trump anyone but Trump. Admittedly, Obama appears as a striking case. But Obama made himself into Obama.

    1. Kenin,

      While your plea to use SES in place of race as a finger on the scale of justice has merit, your claim that education at the most selective schools is better is simply false. Much empirical data refute your analysis.

      What we know is that higher education is a de facto sorting mechanism with the degree of admissions selectivity the single best predictor of graduation rates, eventual salaries etc. The single most powerful predictor of selectivity is zip code. That is, the higher the SES the greater chance one gets into the so called best colleges. None of
      criteria used to measure institutional quality in such guides as US NEWS involves actual learning measures. Worse, where the few rigorous studies have been done to measure actual learning during four years of college ( sometimes called value-added learning) it turns out that the most selective schools fare no better and sometimes worse than their less selective counterparts even while their graduates still look good upon graduation because of the “diamonds in, diamonds out” phenomena.

      Further, your claim that professors at the most selective schools are equal to if not better teachers than at less renown schools is also false. Research shows that the rewards for mostly research prowess rather than teaching- much less demonstrable student learning- that is the norm at the most selective schools, means that students do not get better teachers, often getting grad assistants instead to replace their busy researcher mentors. Moreover, most Ph.Ds go to the same top 50 graduate institutions in which virtually none prepare one to teach. Indeed, studies show that the more research expertise the worse the teaching since most of one’s time is not devoted to teaching. Being an expert in a given scholarly discipline may be a necessary condition for good teaching, but it is not sufficient. The reward system and appropriate training and feedback are crucial.

      1. Absolutely correct. In engineering the so-called top-tier faculty are those that bring in the big bucks. To a large extent success in obtaining serious funding depends on the area of research. For example, if you’re in power (particularly if related to “green energy”) there is plenty of funding to be had. Good luck getting any funding–let alone serious funding–if you are interested in say chaotic systems or distributed computing or image processing. Yet those are all legitimate research areas.

        My qualms are not with funding availability in different research areas. My problem is the reward distribution which is heavily biased to those who bring in large amounts of research grant money. Suppose you’ve got a million dollars in funding this year from those power research grants. Teaching load? One maybe two small classes per year, only at the graduate level, and only in your field of research. Your exposure to most students in the department–particularly undergraduate students–is virtually non-existent. Indeed, your million dollars of funding essentially guarantees you’ll never have to worry about teaching an undergraduate class. Moreover, you are guaranteed getting promoted to full professor. If your focus is teaching excellence, not so much.

        If you want exposure to good teachers, the schools that reserve their rewards for those who bring in money may not be a good choice.

  6. Other than the alumni connections, what is the inherent employment advantage of the selective liberal arts college?

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