Monday, September 24, 2007

Enough of the Affirmative Action Debates!

Last week I met with a financial planner to start a college fund for my daughter. While I am a college professor and therefore, my daughter can attend my school for free (a huge benefit), I want to give her the opportunity to attend whatever college she wishes. Well, I wanted to give her that opportunity. What I discovered was that I would have to save $12,000.00 a year to have enough money by the time she turns 18. When you are a college professor, saving $1000.00 a month for your newborn is just plain out of the question.

I am lucky because I can ensure that Maddie will get an excellent college education no matter what. But, this reality check really alerted me to how increasingly unlikely the majority of Americans will be able to afford college tuition for their children. When I asked how much I should set aside for a public university, I was told $500.00 a month. Frightening.

It is wholly clear to me that a college education will be another hurdle separating those with money from those without. Little about higher education will be based on merit when it costs that much to attend. Sure, you could take out student loans for the whole lot, but who on earth would be able to ever pay back that kind of debt? It would be akin to taking out a sub prime jumbo mortgage.

I couldn't help but agree with Jerome Karabel's op-ed in the NYTimes, entitled "The New College Try." (Leave it to a sociologist to demystify the reality of institutions). Karabel's central claim is that what gets Americans into top colleges is not merit, but money. Actually he says socio-economic class. I wonder where I fall in terms of socio-economic class. While I don't make a whole lot of money, I am exceptionally well-educated and therefore likely to pass these class advantages onto my daughter.

Karabel writes:

AMERICANS are committed to the belief that everyone, no matter how humble his origins, has a chance to rise to the top. Our leading colleges and universities play a pivotal role in this national narrative, for they are considered major pathways to power and privilege.

Today, the competition to get into these institutions is at an all-time high, and this has led to serious problems across the socioeconomic spectrum — gnawing and pervasive anxiety among the affluent, underrepresentation among the middle classes and an almost total lack of access among the poor. Changing the situation will take drastic action. Despite their image as meritocratic beacons of opportunity, the selective colleges serve less as vehicles of upward mobility than as transmitters of privilege from generation to generation.

Just how skewed the system is toward the already advantaged is illustrated by the findings of a recent study of 146 selective colleges and universities, which concluded that students from the top quartile of the socioeconomic hierarchy (based on parental income, education and occupation) are 25 times more likely to attend a “top tier” college than students from the bottom quartile.

Yet at least since the 1970s, selective colleges have repeatedly claimed — most recently in amicus briefs submitted to the Supreme Court in the landmark affirmative case concerning the University of Michigan — to give an edge in admissions to disadvantaged students, regardless of race. So it came as a rude shock a few years ago when William Bowen, the former president of Princeton, and his associates discovered, in a rigorous study of 19 selective colleges, that applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, whether defined by family income or parental education, “get essentially no break in the admissions process.”

The paucity of students from poor and working-class backgrounds at the nation’s selective colleges should be a national scandal. Yet the problem resides not so much in discrimination in the admissions process (though affirmative action for the privileged persists in preferences for the children of alumni and big donors) as in the definition of merit used by the elite colleges. For by the conventional definition, which relies heavily on scores on the SAT, the privileged are the meritorious; of all students nationwide who score more than 1300 on the SAT, two-thirds come from the top socioeconomic quartile and just 3 percent from the bottom quartile.

There is so much that is right on about this argument. First of all, it exposes that "merit" is a lie. When you have debates about affirmative action and very privileged students demand that admission should be based on merit, what they are really arguing--though few of them realize it--is that their class privilege should be protected. Because these students have every advantage working for them to get them into an elite college, they essentially didn't earn their spot, well, at least not in a fair competition from the outset.

Secondly, Karabel points out that the argument that students of color or lower socio-economic class students are not getting an advantage in admissions processes. Despite all the hullabaloo that undeserving students will get a spot at Princeton (i.e. African American or Latino students from poor backgrounds), the reality is that very few of them ever do. Affirmative action seems to be working far more for those with money.

You have to wonder then why affirmative action debates still draw such intensity these days given that these students are not losing their spots educationally and professionally to minority students. In fact, what seems clear is that the divide between the privileged "haves" and the disadvantaged "have nots" is ever widening.

I can't help but think of Za's college. It is one of the few places left that is truly committed to giving disadvantaged students an opportunity to raise themselves up economically and educationally. And yet, his college is teetering on the edge of financial collapse. The endowment is nothing and the school doesn't make up for it in tuition, since it is recruiting students who cannot pay full tuition. These students are excellent, but the college lacks the resources to give them the same quality of education that students at the college next door get.

My deepest hope is that Za's college stays alive; that it beats the odds and continues to make a difference in the lives of its students.