On September 29, I was one of three panelists in a forum at Pomona College. The question was whether America’s elite colleges and universities should adopt admission policies designed to ensure student diversity with respect to socio-economic status (SES). I think that is a bad idea and will explain why in this piece.
The moderator provided this background. According to a study by the Century Foundation, in 2004 America’s most selective 146 colleges enrolled 74 percent of their students from the wealthiest quarter of the population, while only 3 percent of their students were from the least wealthy quarter.
I have no reason to doubt those figures, but do not see how a policy of SES diversity makes any sense.
One consistent pattern I see in policy discussions (not just higher education, but in general) is this: advocates of government and central planning solutions to problems almost always overestimate the benefits that would come from adoption of their proposals and underestimate (and usually completely overlook) the costs they would cause. The discussion over SES diversity is another instance of that. Benefits would be negligible, but the costs substantial.
First, we need to focus on the “elite” colleges and universities that supposedly should try to create student bodies that are more SES diverse. The apparent assumption is that because they are regarded as elite (once again, those U.S. News rankings flex their muscles!), the education students receive at them must be superior. Access to superior education will help students from poorer families do better—right?
The trouble is that the education provided at the top schools isn’t necessarily one bit better than the education at schools with lower rankings. Often, it’s markedly worse. The reason why is because professors at the “elite” schools (and also many of the non-elite, it must be said) are so wrapped up in their research work that they pay little attention to the undergraduates. Professor Murray Sperber calls it the “faculty/student non-aggression pact.” Professors don’t want to put much effort into teaching, so they don’t demand much of the students, who will all get high grades without regard to their learning. Everyone is happy, except for the odd student who really wanted to learn.
That’s my first reason for saying that SES advocates have overestimated the benefits.
The second reason is that degrees are not destiny. Getting a degree from one of the “elite” schools (and now I think I have justified using the snicker quotes) is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for a successful, prosperous life. Some of those who graduate from “elite” institutions end up among the large number of underemployed college graduates, including hard-pressed adjunct faculty, while many students who graduate from lesser-known institutions find employment in their fields of study and fare very well in business, a profession, non-profit work, politics, and so on. In the U.S., how well a person does in life ultimately depends on his or her talent and ambition. The diploma on the wall has almost nothing to do with it.
If the benefits of SES diversity are overstated, its costs are mostly overlooked.
One cost is that it mismatches students and schools. Just as colleges have had to lower admission standards in order to attract enough students from certain racial groups to meet their “diversity” targets (the recent turmoil at the University of Wisconsin highlighted the extent to which this “flagship” school uses preferences), so would they have to lower their standards in order to enroll substantially larger numbers of students from poorer families. There aren’t enough students from poorer families who have the academic profile it usually takes to get into highly selective institutions to enable all of the “elite” institutions to have “their share.” Therefore, the push for SES diversity entails lowering admission standards for students in that group.
Is it a big favor to a student who is less well prepared for college to admit him or her into a school where most of the students are sharper? No, and in fact it is often harmful. A student who might have been able to do well in engineering at, say, UMass-Amherst, might find the rigor and pace of engineering at M.I.T. beyond his capabilities. It isn’t a criticism of that student to say that he’d be better off at a “lesser” institution, but simply recognition of the fact that people aren’t equal in many dimensions.
One result of mismatching is that students who are the beneficiaries of preferences more frequently fail to graduate.
Another result is that the beneficiaries may avoid more rigorous majors and instead settle into softer, less demanding ones. A student who could have done well in, say, chemistry at North Carolina Central might well decide to pursue a degree in sociology or women’s studies if she were admitted and enrolled at Duke. The former would probably offer better long-run prospects.
A third cost is that instruction tends to suffer when professors have a wide mix of students in class. When the “preferred” students are less capable (and frequently less interested, too) than the rest, professors feel pressure to lower their expectations and inflate their grades so as to avoid embarrassing those students and possible conflict with administrators.
There is also an opportunity cost to trying to achieve SES diversity. A decision to admit Student A because his family is working class also means a decision not to admit Student B, whose parents are upper middle-class professionals. The admitted student gives the school more of the sought-after “diversity,” but perhaps he will prove to be just another mediocre student who blends in perfectly with the rest of the student body. Rejected Student B, however, might have been a standout: he might have started a string ensemble, or a debate club, or been an outstanding calculus mentor for other students. Individuals differ along innumerable dimensions, so why assume that one of them (SES) is especially valuable?
And there’s one more cost. Adopting a policy of preferences for students of low-SES takes us another step away from Reverend King’s ideal of a society in which people are judged on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, or (I’ll add) other irrelevant characteristics such as family finances.
Instead of having the admissions office focus on the irrelevant factors of students’ ancestry and family circumstances, I maintain that it would be far better to try assembling a student body that is as homogeneous as possible in the ways that actually matter in higher education—capability and interest in learning. That would be far better educationally than shuffling a few students “up” into supposedly elite schools while shuffling an equal number “down” into their backup schools in a pointless quest for optimal diversity.
In the question period, a student asked if that approach wasn’t unfair. What if the students who are highly capable and interested are that way because their parents brought them up in an education-rich environment? Do they deserve their good fortune?
Philosophers will probably debate that question forever, but colleges can’t and shouldn’t try to make the world perfectly fair. They should try to do what they’re supposed to do—educate students—as best they can. By focusing on irrelevant characteristics in deciding which students to admit, they get themselves off track.