Give the Poor Students a Chance, Not a Preference

Jan 25, 2016 |  Ashley Thorne

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Give the Poor Students a Chance, Not a Preference

Jan 25, 2016 | 

Ashley Thorne

Ashley Thorne's article was originally published in The Federalist​. We post an extract below; please read the entire article here.

Perhaps many poor students do have to work harder than their peers and thus have a quality of character that colleges should desire. As for access, Americans should contribute to and volunteer in programs that help low-income students on their way to college, specifically ones that provide free after-school tutoring, assistance with scholarship and FAFSA forms, and SAT and ACT prep courses. We should also support programs that provide community and accountability for students once they have enrolled in college.

Colleges can encourage poorer students to apply by offering generous financial aid (grants, not loans) to students accepted through need-blind admissions. But they ought not to institute income-based preferences. ....

Valuing poverty as a good in itself, and using it as a “plus” for applicants to college, would only introduce the insecurities (“Do I belong here or was I a ‘diversity’ recruit?”) and bitterness (“You probably don’t think I deserve to be here”) that racial preferences have made so familiar. Socioeconomic status is less visible to the eye than race and ethnicity, but we shouldn’t ignore the power of students knowing that they and their peers each earned a place at their competitive institutions fairly, based on appropriate criteria.

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Robert W Tucker

| February 16, 2016 - 11:37 AM


In directing this discussion toward the behavioral and brain sciences, albeit slightly, Ashley Thorne has opened the door for an empirical assessment of the meaning of chance and equity as instantiated in various socioeconomic contexts.

Unfortunately, only one side of the distribution is being addressed. We need to determine what it means to allow for chance to play out among the underclass. We also need to assess how inequity plays out among the children whose parents have standing.

The kind of remedy Ashley Thorne seeks for the underclass would, if applied equivalently to the upper class, result in many rejected applications among those who are admitted owing to little and sometimes nothing more than their socioeconomic station.

Are we arguing for merit-based admissions for all, or would we prefer to exclude such considerations for the children of our friends?

John Wenger

| February 16, 2016 - 5:32 PM


I read Ms. Thorne’s entire essay, which deserves to be read in its entirety, and I found myself agreeing with almost all of it.  But in her argument, she makes the point that in assessing a poor student, tests like the SATs may not be considered because the students may not be able to afford to take them.

Considerations of this sort make sense if we want to measure a student’s true ability, and granting some extra points for poverty might be a way to do that.  What would be better is for a college to pay for such exams.  Of course there are other problems as well; for example, poor students generally cannot afford to get tutored.

While I completely agree with Ms. Thorne’s determination to allow merit to be the only criterion, how one discovers that merit seems to be a real problem, and putting a thumb on the scale might be one way to compensate for this.

For the record, I am completely opposed to racial affirmative action.

John C. Wenger

Robert W Tucker

| February 16, 2016 - 6:41 PM


While I may be in agreement with the principles Mr. Wenger appeals to in this discussion, I think we need to accommodate the empirical findings from brain, cognitive, learning, and measurement sciences when attempting to formulate a principled position involving concepts such as opportunity and true ability.

This is not an appropriate forum for getting into the scientific weeds but it does help to understand that for a given genetic roll of the dice, brain and cognitive development begin to follow two distinct paths for children of the well off and children of the poor. Maternal nutrition, early childhood stimulation, and the richness of the home environment all determine different incremental outcomes. By the time a typical underclass student of ability sits for his or her ACT test, the cost of the test is an infinitesimally marginal component of the accumulated disadvantage relative to the student of privilege. It can be a disingenuous distraction to focus on something as trivial as the mechanics of the test environment.

Put differently, if an underclass student and a privileged class student achieve the same score on the ACT, the former is likely to be the smarter of the two by a considerable margin, and would have been even more so had he or she been raised in a stimulating intellectual environment with three well-balanced meals rich in DHA, proteins, etc.

It is unscientific to judge how we ought to respond to conditions of poverty if the formulation of our judgments ignores what science has to teach us about the precursors, determinants, and partial determinants of social opportunity.

John Wenger

| February 17, 2016 - 9:27 AM


Mr. Tucker’s response to my post is quite reasonable.  His statement that a poor student with an equal score to a rich student was born with far greater natural ability than the rich student, while not provable in any individual case (or if it is, I don’t know how one measures it), is eminently reasonable and in accordance with common sense. However, it opens up an enormous can of worms. 

What if the scores are unequal?  How close do they have to be before we can deduce who had more natural ability at birth?  If the poor student was born with greater abilities, to what degree are these abilities still present?  How can we determine these things?  If the problem is nurture, the deficiencies may be addressable with remediation, but if the student’s cognitive abilities have been diminished and unrecoverable, his poor scores should be allowed to stand.  How can we tell the difference?  What we need is an IQ test that measures pure intellect and not accumulated knowledge.  Is that possible?

I am a pure mathematician with no knowledge at all of any of this, and I have no idea how to proceed after this point except to suggest that either skilled committees or individuals make judgments based upon experience in each case.  Of course, there is always the danger that this would turn into a backdoor to racial quotas, but it doesn’t have to do so in principle.  It seems to me that a door should be open to consider such cases.

Robert W Tucker

| February 17, 2016 - 3:35 PM


Mr. Wegner raises another important point. It is deplorable when the avoidable conditions of an underclass life reduce someone’s ability to succeed; e.g., lead pipes in Flint. While we need to address those kinds of issues as a society, the diminished ability of a Flint high school student is now a sad fact. Knowing how it was caused, and who might have been responsible, will not improve the student’s ability to benefit from a college mathematics course. It is legitimate, therefore, to consider the role this kind of disadvantage should play in admissions decisions.

An additional complication lies in determining where one would draw the line on this slippery slope. Is being disadvantaged because your government failed to deliver clean water materially different from being disadvantaged because you received an unlucky combination of genes from your parents? It seems clear that these two cases are different in important ways. It is less clear how these differences should be reflected in admissions policy, if at all. Are we seeking to compensate for disadvantages “caused” by society; i.e., poor government decisions that could have been made differently? If so, I guess we offer a few points on the admissions ladder to the lead infused brain, and nothing more than our condolences to the unlucky contestant in the genetic lottery. Does this line of demarcation seem acceptable? If so, what are the determinative principles?

We need to be careful here.

We have already seen that scientific findings can shift not only the nature of the argument but the relevant principles upon which the argument is based. It is certain that further scientific discoveries will redraw this already fuzzy line, and not always in predictable ways. Some of these findings are being written up as I write this. Against this backdrop, can we identify superordinate principles that would pass tests of justice as fairness?