But here’s something I’ve noticed lately — left-wing people at the most prestigious and exclusive colleges are adopting very high-flying rhetoric and then making or proposing changes that obviously aren’t going to change much of anything. Cornell University, for example, decided a few weeks ago to officially
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But here’s something I’ve noticed lately — left-wing people at the most prestigious and exclusive colleges are adopting very high-flying rhetoric and then making or proposing changes that obviously aren’t going to change much of anything. Cornell University, for example, decided a few weeks ago to officially change the Department of English to the Department of Literatures in English, which “is part of decolonization efforts that started at Nairobi University in 1968, where the English department was renamed the Department of Literature.”
The difference here is that the whole idea of an institution of higher education in Nairobi was literally part of the project to construct an independent nation of Kenya.
Cornell, by contrast, is a school for rich kids. Data published by The Upshot in 2017 and collected by the economist Raj Chetty, who now directs the Opportunity Insights team at Harvard University, shows that the median income of Cornell students’ families was over $150,000 per year. Sixty-four percent of Cornell undergrads came from the top 20 percent of the income distribution, and you’re 2.5 times more likely to encounter a child of the top 1 percent on campus than a child of the bottom 20 percent. At Harvard, where the the student paper wants to fight racism with a mandatory course on racial justice, the actual student body is even more upscale than Cornell’s.
I don’t really care what academic departments want to call themselves, nor do I object to some college experimenting with an antiracism class. But if you’re affiliated with an elite college and are concerned with social justice, you owe it to yourself and the world to think a little more critically about the core functioning of your institution.
Most students don’t attend selective universities. And a large and growing share of students don’t fit the classic “college student” model of a full-time student between the ages of 18 and 25. In general, the fates of the highest-profile and most famous institutions of higher education are greatly overweighted in politics and media discourse. That said, these institutions control massive financial resources. The real question is whether there is something they can do to use those resources more responsibly.
If you look at the data published by The Upshot, you will find that the top colleges in the U.S. News & World Report’s rankings all cater to a very rich slice of the American population. At Princeton, hundreds of faculty members signed a letter last summer that begins with the pronouncement that “Anti-Blackness is foundational to America” and calls for all kinds of diversity hiring, along with the creation of a special committee to “oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty.” At Northwestern, protests calling for the abolition of the campus police department led to significant acts of vandalism, which were met with an activist group’s retort that property destruction is a small thing compared with the overwhelming need to dismantle “a system of racial capitalism.” At the University of Pennsylvania, there’s a push to “open the campus, and all its buildings, to the community.”
Again, without casting judgment on any of these specific ideas (or scanting the potential social-justice value of universities’ research output), what you have here are a bunch of donor-financed nonprofit institutions whose core work in undergraduate education is to take a bunch of upper-class children and help them further entrench their position in the upper class. The most obvious social-justice question you can ask is, “Isn’t there something more worthwhile they could be trying to do?”
Brown was a holdout among the Ivies on this but went need-blind in 2002. The really bleeding-edge universities like Yale and Harvard are even need-blind for international students. This is a fine idea, but what I recall reporting at the time as a student journalist at Harvard is that one of the reasons it made sense was that in practice, need-conscious admissions were not actually screening out a large number of students.
The other thing is that tuition at many elite private colleges is so high that “need” extends comically far up the income ladder. At Harvard, they boast that “55% of students receive need-based Harvard scholarships.” But combine that with the median family income of Harvard parents and you’ll see that tuition is so high that families with above-average incomes can’t afford to pay full price. This is, in effect, a price-discrimination strategy, and it works well for its narrow purposes. But it also means that unlike in an era of systematically cheaper college, scholarships aren’t primarily a vehicle for helping working-class kids get to college. So when administrators pivot the conversation to financial aid, they are dodging the core issue, which is that their admissions are massively tilted toward rich kids.
Several years ago, Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery used detailed information from the College Board to show that students with SAT/ACT scores in the top 10 percent are disproportionately drawn from higher-income families and seem to be very likely to have at least one highly educated parent. (The parental-education finding is drawn solely from SAT scores because ACT doesn’t ask, so I wouldn’t necessarily take this factoid to the bank.)
We can debate exactly why this is until the cows come home, but from the standpoint of a college, it is what it is — if you want to make very high standardized test scores necessary for admissions, you are going to end up with a rich-skewed student body. But even within this limited context, our colleges are doing less than they should.
In fact, “the vast majority of very high-achieving students who are low-income do not apply to any selective college or university,” even though high-achieving low-income students who do apply to selective colleges are admitted to and graduate from college at high rates.
For Stanford to just give $25 million to Cal State–Los Angeles would be kind of weird, but it would also almost certainly be more efficacious than investing $25 million in racial-equity programs at Stanford.
This is a real tragedy, because even though everyone knows that affluent parents highly value their kids’ going to prestigious schools, Stacy Berg Dale and Alan Krueger found that the benefits of actually attending one are much larger if you’re from a disadvantaged family. Basically, we have a swarm of yuppies fiercely competing to get their kids into highly selective colleges that provide little value to them, while a huge share of smart-but-poor kids who would benefit enormously from attending a selective college don’t even bother to apply.
What Dale and Krueger found is that prestigious colleges do a certain amount of deliberate recruiting of smart low-income students in the community where they are located, and also that in a big school district such a student is more likely to encounter a teacher who went to a highly selective college and encourage her to apply. But poor kids in small school districts that are far from highly selective institutions are very likely to be overlooked, with nobody encouraging them to do what every yuppie kid does and apply to several colleges that are well-matched to their SAT scores plus a safety school or two.
This problem is known as undermatching, and the College Board — working with Hoxby and Sarah Turner — got excited by a low-cost nudge that their research indicated could solve it. Unfortunately, it turned out not to work as hoped.
That said, colleges committed to social justice are allowed to take steps that are more drastic than low-cost nudges! The core finding here is that America’s elite colleges could, without making any changes to their admissions standards, help a large number of talented children from low-income families. In doing so, they could displace a number of affluent students who wouldn’t even be harmed by ending up at less selective institutions. All it would take is for someone to persuade the low-income students to apply, which seems like the absolute least you could do in pursuit of social justice.
But you also might want to consider more drastic steps.
A fundamental paradox about all this is that highly selective colleges are just a somewhat odd vehicle for social-justice campaigning. Decades ago, Ivy League campuses were bastions of conservatism, which sort of made sense. For example, a Harvard Crimson poll of undergraduates at FDR’s alma mater showed him losing badly in the 1932 election to Herbert Hoover. A million things have changed in the intervening 90 years, and now most of the students and most of the faculty at elite colleges have left-wing political commitments. That doesn’t mean everyone on campus agrees with the most out-there social-justice demands. But it does guarantee that they will get some kind of hearing, because there is a broad consensus on campus that various kinds of egalitarian ideas are correct. But the most straightforward way for a college like Harvard or Princeton to advance social-justice goals is not to tweak how things work on campus, but instead to transfer some of their considerable financial and human resources to institutions that serve more pressing needs.
Chetty’s research team, for example, found that there really are a bunch of colleges that are vehicles of upward mobility — mostly public institutions in places with a lot of immigrants, such as the City College of New York, California State University at Los Angeles, and the University of Texas-Pan American.
For Stanford to just give $25 million to Cal State–Los Angeles would be kind of weird, but it would also almost certainly be more efficacious than investing $25 million in racial-equity programs at Stanford. At a minimum, rich fancy schools with huge fund-raising programs could find a “buddy” college that actually educates low-income kids and do a joint fund raiser. Princeton could pay graduate students to tutor poor high-school students in Trenton instead of paying them to teach rich Princeton students.
The basic fact is almost anything you could do with money would be a more reasonable social-justice priority than spending it on students at fancy colleges.
This stuff is just hard. So I completely sympathize with everyone whose notional social commitments are at odds with the practical roles of the institutions they are embedded in. I don’t expect Christopher Eisgruber to say “in light of Princeton’s strong commitment to racial justice and social equality, we’re dissolving the university tomorrow and giving all the money to support high-quality preschool programs in poor communities.”
But it would be constructive to acknowledge the fundamental tension between the idea of being a rich, highly exclusive college that trains the next generation of investment bankers and corporate lawyers and the idea of crusading for justice in either a socialist kind of way or a woke kind of way (or both!). It’s just not going to work. Then you can start to relieve the tension by breathing deeply and trying to be practical. You really could set a strong goal of trying to fix the undermatching problem, for starters.
These colleges could also push themselves to expand the size of their undergraduate classes. The Ivy League has gotten way more exclusive over the past couple of generations thanks to population growth and the rise of co-education. If every elite college aimed to triple or quadruple enrollment over a reasonable span of time, the clientele served would necessarily end up being a bit less upscale, if for no other reason than there are only so many scions of the top 1 percent to go around. To be really idealistic about it, they might even reconsider their fund-raising priorities. How much money does Yale actually need in a world where other charities are feeding the hungry or saving desperately poor children from intestinal parasites?
There’s an old joke that academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low, and I think that explains a fair amount of the on-campus fireworks. But the stakes in the decision-making of institutions with huge endowments are actually not as low as they might seem — as long as such colleges are willing to actually open themselves up to broader questions than what to name the English Department.
This essay originally appeared on Slow Boring, a newsletter from Substack.