Striving for Socio-Economic Diversity

George Leef

In this Chronicle post, Richard Kahlenberg responds to some criticism (which he labels as "right" and "left") of his signature issue, namely promoting socio-economic diversity as another criterion in college admissions. I don't think his responses are convincing. Moreover, he overlooks two assumptions his case rests on. I know that at least the latter of the two has been attacked because I have done so. First, Kahlenberg leaps to the conclusion that just because a student comes from a relatively poor family and succeeds in school well enough to qualify for college admission, that student is a "striver" who has "overcome obstacles." I don't think that follows. Being relatively poor in the U.S. does not mean deprivation of anything essential. And with the lowering of academic standards, graduating from high school with "good" grades is pretty easy these days. Some kids from poorer homes no doubt have had to deal with serious problems and disruptions around them, but we shouldn't assume that low-income status implies that. Besides, there are non-poor students who have managed to deal with difficulties. Second, what is the reason for thinking that it's a "reward" to go to an elite college or university? If, for example, a student from a relatively poor family in eastern North Carolina could get into East Carolina on his merits, is it much better for him to instead go to Duke? The assumption seems to be that schools with higher US News rankings are "better" schools, but what justifies that assumption? Courses are not necessarily taught better at Duke; they may be taught less well. Will the student have a brighter, more lucrative career with a Duke pedigree than ECU? Possibly, but it's by no means certain. The reverse is possible, especially if the student is near the bottom of the more intellectually competitive student body at Duke. Finally, the more prestigious degree might help the student land his first job, but in the long run people are rewarded on their productivity, not their credentials. I'm with Roger Clegg (see his comment) in thinking that the less colleges give preferences to applicants because of characteristics such as family ancestry and circumstances and the more they evaluate them on academic interest and aptitude, the better.

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