By JEROME KARABEL
New York Times Opinion
AMERICANS are committed to the belief that everyone, no matter how humble his origins, has a chance to rise to the top. Our leading colleges and universities play a pivotal role in this national narrative, for they are considered major pathways to power and privilege.
Today, the competition to get into these institutions is at an all-time high, and this has led to serious problems across the socioeconomic spectrum — gnawing and pervasive anxiety among the affluent, underrepresentation among the middle classes and an almost total lack of access among the poor. Changing the situation will take drastic action. Despite their image as meritocratic beacons of opportunity, the selective colleges serve less as vehicles of upward mobility than as transmitters of privilege from generation to generation.
Just how skewed the system is toward the already advantaged is illustrated by the findings of a recent study of 146 selective colleges and universities, which concluded that students from the top quartile of the socioeconomic hierarchy (based on parental income, education and occupation) are 25 times more likely to attend a “top tier” college than students from the bottom quartile.
Yet at least since the 1970s, selective colleges have repeatedly claimed — most recently in amicus briefs submitted to the Supreme Court in the landmark affirmative case concerning the University of Michigan — to give an edge in admissions to disadvantaged students, regardless of race. So it came as a rude shock a few years ago when William Bowen, the former president of Princeton, and his associates discovered, in a rigorous study of 19 selective colleges, that applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, whether defined by family income or parental education, “get essentially no break in the admissions process.”
The paucity of students from poor and working-class backgrounds at the nation’s selective colleges should be a national scandal. Yet the problem resides not so much in discrimination in the admissions process (though affirmative action for the privileged persists in preferences for the children of alumni and big donors) as in the definition of merit used by the elite colleges. For by the conventional definition, which relies heavily on scores on the SAT, the privileged are the meritorious; of all students nationwide who score more than 1300 on the SAT, two-thirds come from the top socioeconomic quartile and just 3 percent from the bottom quartile.
Only a vigorous policy of class-based affirmative action that accounts for the huge class differences in educational opportunity has a chance of altering this pattern. This change should be accompanied by a fundamental re-examination of the very meaning of “merit.”
Is resilience in the face of deprivation a form of achievement? Should universities expect — and even demand — higher levels of achievement from applicants who have enjoyed every social and educational advantage? Does the emphasis on outstanding extracurricular accomplishments privilege already privileged students who have the time, the resources and the opportunities to display such accomplishments?
On the other side of the socioeconomic divide, anxious parents in wealthy cities and suburbs are now hiring expensive consultants to give their toddlers an edge in the competition to get into the “right” preschool, proving that the college admissions frenzy has reached a point where radical ideas are in order for the privileged, too.
One of my favorites is the idea of a lottery. This could take the form of reserving a modest number of places in the freshman class — say 5 percent to 10 percent — for applicants who, having met a high academic threshold, would be selected at random. While the admissions office would know the identities of the students admitted by lottery, no one else — not faculty, not employers and not the students themselves — would.
Such a lottery would permit the college to determine whether its traditional selection criteria did any better than chance in predicting success in school and in later life; my own guess is that lottery admits would be amply — perhaps equally — represented among the institution’s most distinguished graduates.
Last, and not least, by undermining the dubious assumption that the applicants admitted are those with the most merit, a lottery might promote a certain measure of humility — a quality in short supply in the upper rungs of the “meritocracy” — among admission officers and students alike.
Jerome Karabel, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of “The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale and Princeton.”