Ron Unz has written a fascinating, and long, article on admissions to America’s elite colleges. Writing at The American Conservative, Unz notes that families have concluded the single best way to guarantee the financial success of their offspring is to gain access to one of our elite universities.
During this period, we have witnessed a huge national decline in well-paid middle class jobs in the manufacturing sector and other sources of employment for those lacking college degrees, with median American wages having been stagnant or declining for the last forty years. Meanwhile, there has been an astonishing concentration of wealth at the top, with America’s richest 1 percent now possessing nearly as much net wealth as the bottom 95 percent.2 This situation, sometimes described as a “winner take all society,” leaves families desperate to maximize the chances that their children will reach the winners’ circle, rather than risk failure and poverty or even merely a spot in the rapidly deteriorating middle class. And the best single means of becoming such an economic winner is to gain admission to a top university, which provides an easy ticket to the wealth of Wall Street or similar venues, whose leading firms increasingly restrict their hiring to graduates of the Ivy League or a tiny handful of other top colleges.3 On the other side, finance remains the favored employment choice for Harvard, Yale or Princeton students after the diplomas are handed out.4
Unz goes on to blow up the myth that admission to these schools is based purely upon merit. Test scores vary widely among those admitted. Trying to match up test scores of different ethnic groups with the percent actually matriculating at these schools shows that some groups are over and some under represented. To be fair, Unz touches upon the idea that it is difficult to define merit.How do you compare a 780 on an SAT achieved by a impoverished student with an 800 from someone going to a private school with extensive test prep? If you have two students with identical scores, do you take the one who speaks Mandarin because his parents could afford a private tutor? Unz attempts to mediate this problem by relying heavily upon National Merit Scholarship (NMS) scores. One becomes a scholar by scoring among the top 0.5% in one’s state. Unz also uses SAT scores, but his reliance upon NMS should be understood, along with the fact that it may lead to its own biases.
That said, when Unz runs the numbers, he finds that attendance at the top four institutions, which he defines as Harvard, Yale, Princeton and CalTech skews in ways not predicted by test scores or population. While much has been made of bias against Asians, he finds that while this does appear to exist, it is not as bad as claimed. While about 5% of the population is Asian, about 16% of students at the elite top three, excluding CalTech, are Asian. Coning down on Harvard, Unz finds that Asians are attending at about 63% of their expected rate, compared to 61% for whites. Asians are not being treated any differently than are whites by his analysis.
The story is different for the white protestants and catholics. While making up about 60% of the population, only about 20% of those attending the top three schools come from this group (about 55% at CalTech). Indeed, activities that might be favored by these groups, especially ones from less urban areas, decrease their chances of admission.
. One of Ephanshade’s most striking findings was that excelling in certain types of completely mainstream high school activities actually reduced a student’s admission chances by 60–65 percent, apparently because teenagers with such interests were regarded with considerable disfavor by the sort of people employed in admissions; these were ROTC, 4-H Clubs, Future Farmers of America, and various similar organizations.87 Consider that these reported activities were totally mainstream, innocuous, and non-ideological, yet might easily get an applicant rejected, presumably for being cultural markers.
I find these numbers shocking. I think one can make a case that since it is difficult to exactly determine merit, schools should look at more than just test scores. In my own case, I have seen problems with the test score system. I have hired people with the very best test scores from highly regarded institutions. I have found that some of these people succeeded by being willing and able to spend 20 hours studying when others were spending just ten. However, now that they have to work, they need to get ten hours work done in ten hours, or maybe nine. If success was achieved via private tutors and longer hours, you don’t get to have those when someone is dying right in front of you and you have just five minutes to fix things. Still, merit must be part of the equation, and I don’t see how we justify a system that so heavily weighs against our population demographics. Tempering merit to achieve a class that looks a bit more like the rest of the country? We can argue the merits of that approach, but at least there are reasonable arguments to be made. Tempering merit to create a class that does not resemble our general population? I fail to see any reasonable argument for this case. This is not diversity or merit, just the exclusion of one group for no clear reason.