Thursday, April 21, 2016

The New York Times and Why the Ivy League Won't Fix Socio-Economic Inequality

Last January Frank Bruni of the New York Times wrote a piece on how many elite colleges are rethinking their admissions processes. You can read the piece in its entirety here; it's informative reading if you have any interest in college admissions at highly selective schools.

Unfortunately, Bruni wants this to be a piece not about the narrow technical world of college admissions, but about the much broader goal of fixing the nation's social and economic inequality problems. In so doing, the article suffers from the myopia typical of everything that the NYT publishes regarding higher education. In Frank Bruni’s world (and, to be fair, that of most of his colleagues), “higher education” means the Ivy League and a handful (no more than 100) of other institutions that actually get mentioned in national newspapers. These are name-brand, prestigious schools - like UNC-Chapel Hill and Michigan (which, along with Harvard, Yale, and MIT, are the only schools he mentions by name). 

It is true that the admissions systems in many of these schools have been pretty messed up for a while, with weird incentive structures that lead prestige-seeking families to sacrifice a lot of money, time, and sanity in a desperate attempt to get their kids into Harvard or Yale. The fact that the families doing so are overwhelmingly upper middle class (and who are likely to read the NYT) reinforces the information flow here, since the Times annually publishes stories about how much harder it is to get into Ivy-level schools today than in the past.

It is also true that the vast majority of the kids who go to these schools are from privileged backgrounds, which does tend to reinforce inequalities in society - but not nearly as much as you’d think. Take the top 80 schools and assume that each one, on average, admits 1000 students per year (some smaller ones, like Williams College, rather less, other larger ones somewhat more). Assume further that those schools could, if they stretched their resources, each afford to give full-ride scholarships to 300 out of those 1000 students (they need varying levels of tuition from the rest in order to keep operating). That’s 24,000 kids from disadvantaged backgrounds per year that will get to go to elite schools (keep in mind, some fraction of that number already does).

That sounds great, and it certainly would be for the individuals lucky enough to hit the jackpot. But in a country of over 300,000,000 people, where the middle class is shrinking, the lower classes are expanding and falling farther behind, and the rate of college degree holding is 35% among adults, how much of a dent is 24,000 going to make? Not much.

So I think there are probably a lot of good ideas in this effort to redo Ivy-level admissions policies. I just don’t think they’re going to matter very much in the grand scheme of things. If higher education is the answer to society’s inequality problems, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton aren’t going to be part of the solution - they’re too small. The real solution lies in public two- and four-year institutions across the country where the vast majority of Americans go to college. In those institutions (my employer included), this conversation about hyper competitive admissions is irrelevant. The real conversation is about funding - states have been de-funding higher ed for many years, and that’s unlikely to change. The problem isn't that people can't get in, it's that we can't afford to provide a good education to as many students as we could serve.

I’ve been frustrated for years that Frank Bruni and his NYT colleagues don't seem to understand any of this. They don't get that the secret to solving the social mobility problem isn’t letting more poor kids into Harvard. If you really want to make a dent, do what we did the last time we had real social mobility in the 1950s and 1960s - make public higher education a serious investment and put resources into it. Tinkering with the way Harvard and UNC admit their students is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.