Class Bigotry in Higher Education

Dec 25, 2013

Right-wing austerity policies are devastating U.S. education. Damage has been especially severe at the college level. Last March, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that state governments were spending “28 percent less per student on higher education, nationwide, in the current 2013 fiscal year,” adjusted for inflation, “than they did in 2008, when the recession hit.” Among the cuts’ many negative consequences is that they make college less accessible to low-income students. The CBPP discovered that tuition at four-year, public colleges rose 27% between 2008 and 2013.

At the federal level, the decade of austerity mandated by the 2011 budget agreement severely threatens education funding. The U.S. Department of Education was hit by automatic cuts earlier this year. Republicans are seeking additional cuts, including steep ones in higher education. That is hardly surprising. Whether it goes under the name “conservatism” or “libertarianism,” right-wing ideology is merely a set of contradictory excuses for the exploitation of cheap labor by hereditary wealth. At its best, education enhances critical thinking, which helps people see through scams like austerity policies. It can also provide opportunities for those who were not born rich. With sufficient education, working-class people might actually escape the trap of low-wage labor and perhaps even compete with rich kids for good jobs. Such outcomes are the stuff of conservative nightmares.

But, if you think liberals are less devoted to social elitism than conservatives, you are mistaken. Higher education is the sector of society over which liberals have the most control. They have a strong hold on the most prestigious colleges, nearly all of which are private institutions unharmed by budget cuts in public education. Yet social exclusion is particularly blatant there.

I wrote about America’s unequal system of higher education in a 2009 piece for Razorcake. The facts I cited were bleak, and one study stood out:

“A 2004 report by the Century Foundation . . . showed that 74% of students at the top 146 U.S. colleges belonged to the richest quarter of the population. Only 10% came from families in the lower half of the income scale.”

Reports such as that one demolished the notion that top colleges were committed to diversity, but major media ignored the dire proofs of social exclusion on campus. Evidence against the diversity myth continued to emerge, however. In 2011, the Chronicle of Higher Education published statistics on social class at the 50 wealthiest U.S. colleges, using the most recent data (from the 2008-09 academic year). The Chronicle reported the percentage of students at each institution who received Pell Grants, a federal scholarship designed for low- and middle-income undergraduates.

The richest and most prestigious private universities ranked among the least socially diverse. Only 6.5% of Harvard students received Pell Grants. Yale’s percentage stood at 8.9% and Princeton’s at 9.9%. The most socially egalitarian institution on the list was the University of California at Los Angeles. UCLA possessed an endowment only about 3% as lucrative as Harvard’s, but UCLA’s percentage of Pell recipients was over four times higher: 30.7%. The University of California at Berkeley was not listed, because it did not rank among the 50 richest colleges, but studies have placed its percentage of Pell Grant recipients in the same range as UCLA’s. [see footnote [i] at end]

The UC system’s success in enrolling Pell students is due to an affirmative-action program for low-income applicants. UC officials developed that approach as a substitute for race-based preferences after California voters banned the latter by passing Proposition 209 in 1996. An unfortunate result of the California case is that it renewed the needless debate between those who believe class should replace race as a category of affirmative action and those who want to keep race-based preferences while continuing to disregard class. In fact, class should be viewed as an essential addition to existing affirmative-action programs, rather than a replacement for them.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, when racial minorities and women were under-represented on campus to the degree that working-class people are today, liberals blamed racism and sexism, respectively. In response, liberals across the country demanded affirmative action; liberals in college administrations implemented it. [see footnote [ii] at end] Why don’t they acknowledge class bigotry and add class to the categories covered by affirmative action?

The answer is that, like conservatives, liberals support discrimination in favor of the social elite and against the working class. (When I criticize liberals, friends sometimes ask, “But aren’t you a liberal?” No. I care about the working class, so that makes me a leftist.) Many liberal faculty and administrators are politically active, but that activism does not extend to challenging social exclusion at the institutions they run. The issue is discrimination, rooted in class bigotry. Discrimination in college admissions will remain as long as the people leave colleges in the hands of bigots.

Leaders of America’s top institutions of higher learning offer two main excuses for enrolling so few working-class students: prestige and money. They claim that they cannot admit more working-class applicants without lowering their academic standards and jeopardizing their high rankings. Likewise, they argue that the cost of financial aid makes it difficult to enroll greater numbers of students who lack the ability to pay tuition. (The latter statement is sometimes accompanied by a promise to raise money for scholarships.)

The first excuse should sound familiar. It is the same one college executives offered decades ago to explain why they could not admit more racial minorities. They then used it again to explain why they could not admit more women. It is no more credible the third time around. In the 2013 edition of the prestigious Times Higher Education World University Rankings, UC Berkeley ranked eighth in the world, with UCLA twelfth. It is not true that colleges lose standing when they improve social diversity.

The money excuse is no less ridiculous. We have already seen that wealthy private institutions have the lowest percentage of Pell Grant students and relatively poor public institutions have the highest. Even so, rich, socially exclusive colleges are lavishly subsidized by taxpayers. All the leading post-secondary institutions in the U.S. are exempt from federal, state, and local taxes. Aided by such generosity, Ivy League universities in particular are rapidly expanding their financial holdings. Harvard’s endowment has climbed to $32.7 billion, an increase of 11.3% over last year’s total. Yale’s has reached $20.8 billion, 12.5% higher than last year.

Contrast the extravagant flow of tax-free money to the Ivies with the budget cuts now decimating all levels of public education. Contrary to stories in corporate media, it is not true that America lacks money for education. It’s just that the money is given away in the form of grants and tax exemptions to unaccountable private institutions that already possess great wealth.

It is no secret that discrimination against working-class applicants is standard practice at elite colleges. In 1998, William G. Bowen, the former president of Princeton, and Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard, offered a stark view of class bigotry among top collegiate administrators and “experts.” In their book, The Shape of the River, written with four other education scholars, Bowen and Bok opposed class-based affirmative action. One reason they gave was that “students with low socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely than students of equivalent ability from high socioeconomic backgrounds to complete their studies, attain professional or doctoral degrees, and earn high incomes.”

That is social profiling. If earning less money after graduation or obtaining fewer advanced degrees disqualified a group for affirmative action, then women and racial minorities would have been disqualified at the outset. Likewise, with these eminent authors urging college officials to view low-income applicants as bad admissions risks, it is no mystery that U.S. colleges enroll so few low-income students. Given that Bowen, Bok, et al. wrote their bookto defend race-based admissions preferences, their slur against working-class applicants pointedly illustrates the class prejudice and selective morality of posh liberals.

Another form of discrimination that higher-education officials openly admit is the practice of granting preferences to “legacies,” children of alumni. That policy simply perpetuates elite colleges’ historical class bias. In 2004, Yale legacy George W. Bush stated he believed such advantages should be abolished, but he dropped the issue thereafter. Liberals at Ivy League universities are more consistent: they oppose legacy privilege in neither word nor deed. The authors of The Shape of the River did not object to affirmative action for the rich and well-connected, though their research showed it to be viciously discriminatory. They reported that white legacy applicants at several elite (but unnamed) private colleges were twice as likely to be admitted as white non-legacy applicants (44% to 22%). Likewise, white legacies who only scored in the 1100s, out of a possible 1600, on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) obtained admission at about the same rate as white non-legacies who scored 1300-1600.

If you are a legacy applicant to a top college, you most likely grew up in an upper- or upper-middle-class family. You have every advantage: parents who know the importance of post-secondary education and understand the application process, expensive schooling, test-coaching, and private tutoring. If, despite all that, you still cannot gain admission based on your academic record, you have no business at a prestigious college. Why don’t concerns about “high standards” apply here?

Defenders of legacy privilege claim that the practice is justified because it honors tradition. But since most institutions of higher learning used to be entirely made up of white men, tradition would be equally honored by preferences for that group. What sane person would fail to see that as discriminatory? (The courts would also see it as illegal.) Why is discrimination in favor of the rich acceptable? On campus or off, elite liberals go to great lengths to avoid that question. They will probably never realize how absurd they look fervently waving the banner of diversity while relentlessly enforcing class privilege.

In March 2006, the dean of admissions at Kenyon College, Jennifer Delahunty Britz wrote a New York Times editorial apologizing for her admissions policies. In the piece, “To All the Girls I’ve Rejected,” Britz stated that she and her staff had been giving preference to male applicants. She explained that Kenyon needed to maintain gender balance and that there were too many qualified female applicants. “The fat acceptance envelope is simply more elusive for today’s accomplished young women,” Britz wrote. The only data she offered to back her assertion was this statistic: “more than 55 percent of our applicants are female, a proportion that is steadily increasing.”

Britz later contradicted her NYT piece in a statement published on the Kenyon web site: “Some critics accuse Kenyon of favoring girls; others say we’re favoring boys. The fact is we’re favoring neither.” Even so, she ignited debate about whether U.S. colleges discriminate against female applicants. That question has drawn intense interest from government and media. In 2009, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission demanded data from 19 colleges and universities in order to investigate whether those institutions were discriminating against women. But in March 2011, Dina Titus, a Democrat on the commission, proposed suspending the investigation without issuing a report. The CRC agreed to Titus’s proposal and the data it collected remains unpublished.

While Britz was apologizing and liberals were looking for discrimination, someone at the NYT should have mentioned the Century Foundation’s 2004 report. Of 131 highly rated colleges and universities with more than 200 students surveyed by the foundation, Kenyon ranked 118th in social diversity. Only 8.3% of Kenyon students received Pell Grants. Britz did not mention her institution’s appalling record of social exclusion, let alone apologize for it. I guess “To All the Uppity Proles I’ve Rejected” isn’t a sufficiently catchy title.

The Times published seven letters to the editor in response to Britz’s confession, but none of the letters mentioned the country-club slant of Kenyon’s admissions policies. That is odd, because, in her editorial, Britz indicated that her concept of academic qualification was heavily influenced by social class. She described a recent female applicant:

“She was the leader/president/editor/captain/lead actress in every activity in her school. She had taken six advanced placement courses and had been selected for a prestigious state leadership program. In her free time, this whirlwind of achievement had accumulated more than 300 hours of community service in four different organizations.”

What about the student’s grades and test scores? “Unfortunately, her test scores and grade point average placed her in the middle of our pool.” Britz and her staff admitted the applicant, after some debate. Britz asserted that there would have been no debate had the applicant been male. But the most telling point about that anecdote is that Britz believes middling grades, relative to the applicant pool, are fine as long as they are accompanied by extracurricular activities of the sort that require leisure and money.

That attitude privileges upper- and middle-class applicants. Many students from low-income, or simply working-class, households have to work after school and during summers to help support their families. Also, in families in which parents work long hours for low wages, older children frequently babysit younger siblings. For such students, there is rarely time for extracurricular activities. Academic performance is the only way they can earn a place at a leading college. If those facts have any meaning for Jennifer Delahunty Britz, they are not evident in her New York Times piece or her institution’s admissions practices.

By the way, Kenyon’s admissions practices include legacy preferences. Dean Britz is not troubled by that, even though a 2007 article in Kenyon’s student newspaper revealed that legacies made up approximately 7% of that year’s freshman class. That is a disproportionately large share, considering the miniscule percentage of Americans whose parents are graduates of Kenyon, a small liberal arts college with about 1,600 students currently. “Legacy is a factor at every college and university in America,” Britz deceitfully stated. While family connections undoubtedly play a role in any college’s admissions process, many institutions do not offer large-scale, formalized legacy preferences of the sort conferred by Kenyon. “I believe the legacy factor will become bigger as time goes on,” Britz predicted, without apology this time. She does not regard discrimination in favor of the rich as discrimination. Likewise, her view of disadvantaged women specifically excludes economically disadvantaged women.
The Times had another chance to address the problems of working-class, female students in December 2012, when the paper published an article by Jason DeParle titled “For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in a Hard Fall.” DeParle profiled three friends from Galveston, Texas: Angelica Gonzales, Bianca Gonzalez, and Melissa O’Neal. Each of the three became the first in her family to attend college, despite growing up in a low-income household and graduating from a high school rated “academically unacceptable” by Texas officials. But four years after the friends enrolled in higher education, DeParle writes, “Not one of them has a four-year degree. Only one is still studying full time, and two have crushing debts.” What went wrong?

Angelica Gonzales attended Emory University, but had to take out a $40,000 loan to pay for her first year there. DeParle noted that Gonzales would probably have obtained significant scholarship aid from the university, but her financial aid application was late: “she got a late start on the complex process and was delayed by questions about her father, whom she did not even know how to reach.”

When Gonzales and her mother drove to Emory in an effort to sort out the problem in person, university officials told them that all aid for that year had been distributed. “From the start, the wires were crossed,” DeParle wrote. In Gonzales’s second year at Emory, university administrators overestimated her family income, a mistake that barred her from participating in a program that allows low-income students to substitute grants for loans. She borrowed more and started working longer hours. Her academic performance suffered and Emory suspended her, giving her the option of re-applying.

For her part, Bianca Gonzalez turned down a chance to study at a four-year university in order to stay home and help take care of her grandfather, who had been diagnosed with cancer and was receiving chemotherapy. She attended Galveston College, a local two-year institution. Melissa O’Neal enrolled at Texas State University in San Marcos. She reported that her former fiancé had run up debt on her credit card and taken money out of her account. When she began working more hours to pay the debt, her academic performance declined, and she too postponed her plans to obtain a four-year degree.

DeParle depicted the three students in a sympathetic manner and he seemed to represent their experiences fairly. But there is a crucial problem with his approach. He wrote: “The story of [the three students’] lost footing is also the story of something larger—the growing role that education plays in preserving class divisions.” DeParle also cited a report on access to higher education:

“Thirty years ago, there was a 31 percentage point difference between the share of prosperous and poor Americans who earned bachelor’s degrees, according to Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski of the University of Michigan. Now the gap is 45 points.”

DeParle wanted to learn why working-class people are under-represented at American colleges, but he failed to take account of discrimination. He focused too much on the mistakes and personal problems of the students he profiled. Societal factors and the indifference of university officials also figure in DeParle’s report, but he did not sufficiently explore the role played by colleges’ admissions policies. College administrators are responsible for diversity, or the lack of it, on their campuses, and it is beyond doubt that bigotry against working-class people is rampant. An article that deals with “the growing role that education plays in preserving class divisions” should contrast stories of working-class applicants who were rejected by top colleges with those of less qualified rich applicants who were admitted.

If the Times needs examples of the latter, Daniel Golden of The Wall Street Journal can help. In his 2006 book, The Price of Admission, Golden interviewed many under-qualified but over-privileged students who were accepted by Harvard, thanks to legacy preferences.

One such student scored 1240 on the SAT, far below the average of students who get into Harvard. “I just don’t test well,” he told Golden. You might think that would be a problem, since higher education entails students taking courses in which they are graded on, you know, tests. But one math score cancelled out all others: the applicant’s father “gave [Harvard] at least $1 million in the mid 1990s.” Harvard happily offered admission. Another successful legacy applicant had a stronger SAT score, 1440, but only graduated in the second quartile of her prep-school class, a result ordinarily too low to meet Harvard’s standards. In defense of affirmative action for the extremely advantaged, she informed Golden, “Any college has to be careful about the students it lets in from a social perspective . . . At one time, Harvard had too many Asian American students.”

Anyone who makes a statement that ignorant should have her high school U.S. history grade changed to an F, assuming it isn’t already in that category. Is it possible for a Harvard scholar to know so little about the history of discrimination against Asian Americans? Didn’t one of the teachers at prep school or Harvard make even a passing reference to the building of the railroads in the 19th century, during which Chinese immigrants and other laborers were overworked in dangerous conditions, suffering disease and sometimes death?

These days, Asian Americans are disadvantaged in college admissions, while rich, white legacies retain enormous privileges. (The Price of Admission includes a chapter on discrimination against Asian Americans.) So if you’re a descendant of Harvard-educated railroad owners, your ancestors’ university grants you preferential treatment at the expense of better qualified descendants of railroad workers. And federal and state governments bless this system with massive tax exemptions. It’s a truly American success story.

But the nadir of Harvard’s admissions cheats is the “Z-list,” made up of academically inferior applicants (mainly legacies, donor’s children, and graduates of elite private high schools) who are admitted simply because they are too posh and well-connected to reject. Z-listers are required to take a year off before enrolling. Harvard officials hope that the break will allow time for the Owl of Minerva—or possibly Big Bird—to bestow the necessary intellectual gifts on the new Ivy Leaguers. By ignoring the aristocratic absurdities that govern admission to elite colleges, The New York Times ignores the biggest obstacle faced by working-class students.

The NYT’s coverage of women’s access to higher education is determined by the social class of the women. When the article is about bourgeois women, Times writers attack the educational establishment (even when they are part of it) and assume that any perceived under-representation is due to discrimination, plain and simple. But when the article is about working-class women, Times writers emphasize general social problems, administrators’ indifference, and girls getting involved with the wrong boys.

In the Times’s defense, the paper has finally begun to publish stories on the small percentages of low-income students at leading colleges. (The problem has existed for longer than The New York Times, so we should probably withhold congratulation.) In November 2012, the Times actually endorsed the idea of class-based affirmative action—in a few words buried in the middle of an editorial defending race-based affirmative action.Tellingly, NYT writers failed to follow up by pressing colleges and universities to create the goals and timetables needed to implement the policy. The Times did publish a piece criticizing Washington University in St. Louis for the disgrace of having (if you can believe it) an even lower percentage of Pell Grant recipients on campus than Harvard, Princeton, or Yale. But the Times still refuses to call such abuses by their true names: bigotry, discrimination.

So much for New York Times liberals. What about those at “alternative” outlets, such as The Nation? That magazine’s writers have never been short on pro-working-class rhetoric, so you might expect them to be on the lookout for class bigotry on campus. Strangely, however, The Nation’s staffers seem to lose their zeal for equality when it comes to the Ivy League. Stalwarts such as editor/publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel (who received her bachelor’s degree from Princeton) and writers Eric Alterman (Cornell) and Katha Pollitt (Harvard) have been conspicuous in their silence. America’s most prominent liberal journalists are complicit in a longstanding hate crime against working-class people.

Will activists help when journalists and educational officials won’t? The National Organization for Women addressed the issue of class in “Talking About Affirmative Action,” posted on the organization’s website. The talking points included this pairing:

Myth: Affirmative Action should be based on economic need.

Fact: Affirmative Action is necessary so that women and people of color of every economic class have the opportunity to enter all fields.
[The formatting is original.]

Note how the writer(s) of the NOW talking points frame the issue. Either we can have affirmative action “based on economic need,” or we can have the current version of the policy, based on gender and race. Why must we choose between those approaches? The NOW doesn’t say. In the early years of affirmative action, when feminists demanded a gender-based version of the policy, male liberals didn’t pretend that they could not accede to those demands without ending race-based preferences. If they had, feminists would have called them liars—and sexists. Yet, leading feminists and other liberals continue to repeat the lie that class-based affirmative action would necessarily end all other types of the program.

Hiding behind the NOW’s inclusion-speak—“women and people of color of every economic class”—is pure class bigotry. When institutions employ affirmative action based on gender, without also basing that policy on class, they place an additional burden of discrimination on working-class men, while allowing rich men to keep their privileges. They also allow a small elite of economically privileged women to monopolize opportunities ostensibly created for women in general. NOW leaders think that’s fine, so they should add another section to their talking points:

Myth: The National Organization for Women supports affirmative action for all women. Open the doors of opportunity to women!

Fact: No white-trash girl is taking my daughter’s place at Harvard. I am legacy! Hear me roar!               

In an article published earlier this year, I argued that we should expand civil rights laws to include social class. If we implement that change, the class bigots of higher education will find themselves in court. They will also be deprived of their strongest defense: secrecy. Private colleges are not required to supply data on the family incomes or social backgrounds of their students. Consequently, there is only one verifiable indicator of the number of low-income students on campus, i.e. Pell Grants. That indicator is deeply flawed and exaggerates social diversity.

Writers on higher education commonly estimate that Pell Grants go to students from the bottom half of the U.S. income scale. But the federal government awards Pells to many students with family incomes above the median for U.S. households (at last count, $51,017), and the number of such awards has risen dramatically in recent years. Since 2007, the total number of Pell Grant recipients has increased by 80%, and those with family incomes over $60,000 per year has increased by nearly 900%. Government statistics for the 2011-2012 academic year revealed that some Pells went to students with annual family incomes exceeding $100,000. Harvard’s, Princeton’s, and Yale’s percentages of Pell students have finally risen above single digits, but that fact must be weighed against the remarkable increase in the number of Pell Grants nationwide, especially among middle- and upper-middle-class students.

Also, each college’s percentage of Pell Grant recipients includes recruited athletes, a favored group of applicants who are more likely to come from low- or middle-income families than most students at elite institutions. The true measure of an admissions policy is how it treats applicants who can’t help the institution win sporting events, but it is currently impossible to factor recruited athletes out of Pell statistics.

Under expanded civil rights laws, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission could require colleges to report what percentage of their students fall into each income quartile, how many are legacies or recruited athletes, how many are the first in their family to attend postsecondary education, and how many have parents who are manual laborers. The commission could also demand that such data be cross-referenced against students’ standardized test scores and high school grade-point averages. If Americans had that information, if they knew exactly how tax-exempt educational institutions rig the admissions process to favor the rich and exclude the working class, they would demand an end to the admissions-rigging, the tax exemptions, or both.

It is no accident that America has a socially segregated regime of higher education. Class bigots on campus meticulously constructed it, aided by class bigots in government, in media, and even in the vanguard of liberal activism. What the elite established by discrimination, the people must replace by law.

[i] See, for instance, the Century Foundation study referenced above. That report, along with other useful articles on social class and education can be found in America’s Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education, edited by Richard D. Kahlenberg (New York: The Century Foundation Press, 2004).

[ii] Race-based affirmative action is currently under legal challenge. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a lawsuit against affirmative action at the University of Texas. In June 2013, the Supreme Court returned the case to a lower court with guidelines for a new ruling. The lower court has since held another hearing on the case, but has announced no new decision.