Pushback from the elites

by Andrew Gelman on April 8, 2013 · 27 comments

in Education,General Politics,Interest Groups

A reform can sound very reasonable, but when it comes up against the interests of powerful people, there can be a lot of resistance.

For example, in recent years there’s been a lot of talk about affirmative action for based on social class, to reserve some fraction of college admissions for people from low-income families, or kids who are the first in their family to go to college, or that sort of thing. It sounds like a good idea (potential difficulties of implementation aside), but as Mark Palko reminds us, such a plan will not make everyone happy. In particular, it would alienate privileged high school students with mediocre test scores.

Palko recounts the story of a high school senior who happens to be the sister of a former Wall Street Journal features editor, and published an article in that newspaper expressing how upset she was to get rejected from some colleges, even though she did not have “killer SAT scores,” “two moms,” or other attributes that she feels is necessary for acceptance at a top school.

I have some sympathy for this student. After all, my application to Harvard was rejected even though I did have killer SAT scores (but only one mom, malheureusement)—-I think the problem was they’d already filled their “nerd quota” that year.

What interested me was this bit from the student’s letter to the newspaper:

Like me, millions of high-school seniors with sour grapes are asking themselves this week how they failed to get into the colleges of their dreams. It’s simple: For years, they—we—were lied to.

Colleges tell you, “Just be yourself.” . . .

Of course there are a lot more applicants to Harvard than there are slots, so at some level this student and the millions of others in her cohort must have realized that “be yourself” can’t really be what you need to get into the college of your dreams.

The problem, I suspect, is that this student thought that the rules of scarcity didn’t apply to her. And if you spread that message to kids who have powerful relatives, you’ll start getting some pushback.

P.S. Palko follows up:

I had mixed feelings about about going after a high school senior; I’m pretty sure that most of the things I wrote at 17 would make me look like an idiot (albeit an idiot with high SATs). John D. MacDonald put it best when he said that when it came to most of his early work, he wished the acid content in the paper had been higher.

That said, this really did capture a certain mindset. It also illustrated my primary concern about factoring race into admissions: high perceived cost to actual benefit ratio. Applicants who never would have been accepted under any criteria convince themselves that their spot was taken away from them.

{ 27 comments }

Chris Mealy April 8, 2013 at 10:17 pm

Nothing makes me realize how elite-driven the country is than all the articles that talk about Ivies as if they were the only colleges that matter. Anyway, one way to solve the scarcity issue and the status issue would be to force (title IX style) colleges to admit five times as many people as they have places for, and then to choose the lucky winners at random. You could even get a little certificate that said, “I got into Harvard.”

Andrew Gelman April 13, 2013 at 5:11 pm

Chris:

If you get the certificate but you don’t get picked to actually attend the college, you don’t get to take my class. So there’s that.

Andrew Gelman April 8, 2013 at 10:26 pm

What was bizarre about the article in question was that the student pretty much admitted she did not have great test scores, nor did she do anything memorable in high school. She also doesn’t seem to be good at sports or music. Given all this, I’m surprised that she was surprised she didn’t get into these highly-competitive schools. That’s what I thought was interesting about the article: that she seemed to feel that she’d been told that, just via her position in society, she’d be able to not work in high school and then get into the college of her dreams.

Avarragon April 9, 2013 at 7:02 pm

While I don’t sympathize with her especially, as she doesn’t seem to have worked particularly hard, I think that one point that she seems to be bringing up, that often colleges seem to be looking for a particular profile while outwardly saying that they want people with “passion” and who are “being themselves” is a legitimate one. What if I don’t particularly like sports? What if I think that it’s being redundant to create yet another charity for starving children in Africa? What if I don’t want to participate in the poisonous popularity contests that are student officer elections?

I’m a high school junior myself. I work hard, I have good grades, I have way above average test scores, and I do participate in extracurricular activities that interest me (usually academic competitive events, like debate, literature competitions, language competitions, that don’t have student officer positions). I actually do wear a headscarf, even! But I know that my chances are slim, because I don’t do sports, haven’t started a charity, and don’t hold any officer positions.

And to add more anecdote (I apologize) it does seem to me that the seniors in my high school that have gotten accepted to their institutions of choice were ones that gamed the system, rather than the ones who legitimately did what their passions were and worked hard in those areas.

I actually don’t care all too much that those institutions want people like that. They’re private, they can do what they want, more power to them. But is sports-playing really the criteria we should be using to admit people to institutions that are often pretty much required to advance in certain fields? (Don’t all the Supreme Court justices have Harvard/Yale degrees? And all the presidents from decades back?) The unfair thing, I think, is not the admissions criteria these institutions use but the level of prestige we grant them regardless.

Andrew Gelman April 9, 2013 at 9:49 pm

Avarragon:

Elite colleges have many more applicants than spaces. If students are being given the impression that “passion” and “be yourself” are enough for admission, they are indeed being misled.

Jacob H. April 10, 2013 at 9:19 am

I don’t think Avarragnon is necessarily bewailing that being himself is insufficient. The point is that these schools aren’t really all that interested in people who genuinely like learning stuff, in many cases. They want machers who are going to start the next Facebook or at least make a gazillion at Goldman they can send back to the Orange and Blue and Grey (or whatever). The whole thing feels phony.

That said, if Avarragnon has high SAT scores (and is reading this blog), he’ll probably end up somewhere he gets a good education; maybe it will be U. Chicago or Swarthmore or Oberlin instead of Harvard, but so what? You can still read Plato and think about logistic regression for four years, which is what it’s all about.

Brett April 10, 2013 at 10:58 am

Avarragnon and Jacob have pushed my thoughts down a slightly different path, the phoniness that is the result of “working” the system. 25 years ago, working the system seemed to mean something a bit less disingenuous and was the exception rather than the rule. These days, “working” the system seems to have become institutionalized – at least in the top school districts and households with high median incomes. Just as an example: When a high school has public service requirements or a paid admissions coach is advising a 9th grader, it’s difficult for an admissions officer to determine whether the applicant cares deeply about what they’re doing. They may very well just care to make the effort to appeal to a competitive college. That’s different and may still be highly valued by admissions for what it is. But I suspect a sincere highly-talented student would be preferred.

In my experience all those years ago, there were many, many classmates who were smarter and more accomplished than I was. And I respected most of them. Some, however, didn’t seem quite so legitimate. I think we called them “tools.” (I realize that doesn’t mean quite the same thing today as it did in the context we used it in back then.)

Maybe the author is smarter than I initially thought. It’s not the students who get turned down that are getting played by the entitled “phonies,” it’s the Ivy League schools who’s efforts to find the most talented students are thwarted by the suburban wealthier-than-they-are-intellectual faux litterati.

LFC April 13, 2013 at 6:23 pm

Avarragon:
It’s not correct that “all the presidents from decades back” have Harvard/Yale degrees.
Carter: Naval Academy
Reagan: Eureka College
Note, further, that the Bushes have Yale degrees b.c Yale is their ‘family institution’, so to speak, but if GWBush had gone to UTexas or TexasA&M or wherever, with everything else held constant, no reason he wouldn’t have become gov of Texas and then president. I’m sure Texans didn’t vote for him for governor b.c of his Yale degree. What counted more in Bush’s case was the family’s connections and money, etc., not the particular alma mater.

PQuincy April 12, 2013 at 2:39 pm

That some individuals feel a sense of entitlement is hardly bizarre — and certainly less bizarre today than it would have been 25 years ago.

The peak era of what might be called ‘naive meritocracy’ seems to have run from the 1960s to the 1980s (including, at the time, Harvard’s admissions decisions, which were famously ‘need-blind’). With the dawning recognition that ‘merit’ had become a highly elastic concept, easily stretched to cover the children of wealthy alumni and the athletically gifted — and the parallel recognition that many measures of alleged ‘merit’ turned out to measure mostly social class, considerable disillusion set in on the left — accompanied, to the applause of conservatives, by the return of ‘merit-based’ financial support for students at more colleges (and even entire states, like Georgia). We’re now at the other end of the cycle, with books like “The Crisis of the Elites” bemoaning the way ‘meritocracy’ can simply reinforce existing inequities.

But beyond all that, entitlement seems to be a fairly ubiquitous human response to success (be it individual or kin-based or any other kind). Those who have, it turns out, tend to feel that they deserve what they have (whatever an outside observer might think). The author of the article in question thus feels entitled — not because of her (mediocre) SAT score or (unremarkable) record in high school, but because she is who she is, and has been showered with privilege most of her life, apparently. She is not unusual in feeling that she must have deserved her privilege so far; ergo, some mendacity on the part of the Harvards of the world, or some conspiratorial plan to give people from some other, obviously unfairly privileged group (the children of two mothers…..really??!?) the benefits that she’s confident she in fact was entitled to, lie behind any rejection she encounters.

I’ve seen entitlement crop up in many different environments (and seen myself practicing it, occasionally), so this young author hardly merits particularly harsh criticism for exposing her own sense of entitlement.

Andrew Gelman April 13, 2013 at 5:13 pm

Pquincy:

I agree that the author does not merit particularly harsh criticism. I thought her letter was worth discussing because of the implicit attitude on her part that it revealed, an attitude that is doubtless shared by many others.

Rob Robinson April 8, 2013 at 10:56 pm

While I have little sympathy with the student in the article, I felt it made a point in the other direction (and perhaps one that was not intended): for the most part, the students (or parents) who will have the savvy and the know-how to build the sort of resume that selective colleges claim to seek are going to be the children of elites. Kids from more ordinary backgrounds may have no idea they are supposed to live their high school lives this way, and thus be at a serve disadvantage. A great deal of this stuff is also, well, resume- padding nonsense, as opposed to meaningful awesomeness, as the article suggests. “Diversity” just becomes a way to cater to elites, IMO.

That may not be the case for Harvard, which really can have the cream of the cream, but I suspect it is true for the majority of “selective schools.”

Brett April 9, 2013 at 9:49 am

Huh. And here I thought the piece was satire.

Not terribly clever or funny satire, but still satire.

A friend of mine identified the point much better than I can:

“Top-flight college admissions have gotten to the point where parents who decide to let their children have normal, unremarkable childhoods probably *are* substantially reducing those kids’ chances of admission. One can debate the best path for a given kid, but there *is* now a fork in the road sometime before high school.”

And I would say that there is an enormous amount of myth perpetuated by colleges and high schools surrounding college admissions, their relevance to success, and their cost/benefit ratios. For some students, a costly liberal arts education is, in reality, a luxury. It is, however, “marketed,” as a requirement for success.

Andrew Gelman April 9, 2013 at 11:51 am

Brett:

As a teacher of statistics at Harvard, I don’t mind that they restrict admission to highly talented students. There are students who can go through high school without working hard and still get “killer SAT scores.” Other students work very hard, and the ability and inclination to work hard is another thing I like to see in my students. I also understand the criticism that Harvard serves the rich and not the poor, and I respect efforts to admit qualified students from underrepresented backgrounds.

But the student in question says she did not work hard, she expresses no particular intellectual interests, and she did not do well on her admissions tests. That doesn’t look so competitive, given that Harvard, Columbia, etc., have many applications to choose from. I agree that this student was misled if she was simultaneously told that admission to an exclusive college was something she should expect to get without working hard or having exceptional talents. My impression is that Harvard etc are more exclusive than they used to be, and maybe the teachers and counselors at her high school were indeed giving her poor advice.

Brett April 9, 2013 at 6:56 pm

I only graduated from Princeton – and with a science degree a couple of decades ago – so maybe I’m off base with my assessment of the piece as satire. I didn’t assume the student would disagree with you that the “best” institutions *should* restrict admission to highly talented students. She also “blames” her parents for her admissions “misfortune,” which I also assumed was tongue-in-cheek.

As the parent of a soon-to-be high school student in one of the better public school districts in New Jersey (with a substantial number of “Tiger” parents), I have to say – this kid’s got a point. Some parents begin “training” their children for competitive colleges long before they reach an age of self-determination. And the academic forks-in-the-road that affect competitive college prospects have also shifted to a younger age as well.

Our school district tries to deny the determinism of 6th grade math placement but the tiger parents know better. Is every tiger parents’ child “highly talented?” No. But the ones who are? They’ll have an advantage over the high talented children of the let-kids-be-kids parents. Of course some of the latter have simply recognized that their children might not be Harvard material and deliberately choose not to tiger-parent their kids into panic attacks and dyspepsia. Our school district itself frequently conveys the “be yourself / let kids be kids” message. I have my own ideas about the reasons for this but they’re too complicated and nebulous to write about here.

If the student and/or parents do not “work” the system, the student will be at a disadvantage. And these days, it seems one has to start “working” the system long before most students, even talented students, even recognize there’s a system to work.

Daniel April 9, 2013 at 11:04 am

“Just be yourself” never meant “just be yourself and you’ll be admitted to your dream college; It means “just be yourself and stop worrying about this so much; you’ll get in somewhere.

Emily April 9, 2013 at 11:57 am

When I’ve heard proposals for class-based AA, it’s been framed as a replacement for race-based AA, mostly in response to a changing legal regime which may forbid the latter. In that case, how that change affects white upper-class kids just depends on whether the magnitude changes. Obviously a plan like the 10% plan in Texas, in which most students who are offered admission to the public universities are offered it on the basis of being in the top 10% of their public high school class, would negatively affect upper-class white kids. But that’s because of its magnitude. Replacing a small race-based policy with a small class-based policy, while preserving all of the current mechanisms by which higher-income kids are privileged in the admissions process, will not negatively affect kids like this. The kids it will negatively affect are high-income and black and/or Hispanic.

Andrew Gelman April 9, 2013 at 12:36 pm

Emily:

My impression was that the student who wrote that letter to the Wall Street Journal thought there already was a class-based affirmative action program: affirmative action in favor of upper-middle-class white kids. She seemed be saying that she’d always been told that a space in a top college was being reserved for her, not based on her test scores, not based on her hard work, not based on her accomplishments, just based on who she was. Following up from that, she seems to feel that the students who are admitted, are admitted based not on their actual talents and accomplishments but based on who they are.

Wonks Anonymous April 9, 2013 at 1:03 pm

I didn’t get the impression she really believed that. I just took it as a self-deprecating “College admissions is crazy these days, amirite?” humor column.

Wonks Anonymous April 9, 2013 at 1:06 pm

“she seems to feel that the students who are admitted, are admitted based not on their actual talents and accomplishments but based on who they are”
Forgot to mention that the penultimate (as well as the ultimate) paragraph in her op-ed indicates she recognizes many others who got in really did deserve it more.

Emily April 9, 2013 at 1:28 pm

Thanks, Andrew. I’m responding to the idea of class-based affirmative action alienating privileged high school students with mediocre test score. I am arguing that a formal class-based affirmative action policy in favor of poor or middle-class kids that’s a replacement for and as small as the current race-based policy will not alienate the white kids in that category because it won’t affect them: It’ll just replace one small group of non-them beneficiaries in favor of another, while (in all likelihood) letting various parts of the admissions process that privilege upper-middle-class white kids stand . (For instance, preferential treatment for the children of alumni and donors, female athletes from sports not a lot of people play, students from elite private schools, students who’ve done expensive volunteer work or internships they got via family connections, etc.)

Joel April 9, 2013 at 1:39 pm

But … given that whites from elite backgrounds currently complain about “small, race-based” affirmative action, I think we can conclude that they will still complain when they are being squeezed out by poor whites, instead.

They might even complain more, since economic class is not an insular class (at least not as far as the court is concerned).

Emily April 9, 2013 at 2:12 pm

OK, sure. People will complain about everything. But those policies still exist, and if they’re eliminated at elite private schools, it’s going to be because of court decisions. I would not characterize resistance from high-income parents (or their kids) as being significant.

Jon April 9, 2013 at 2:55 pm

“expressing how upset she was to get rejected from some colleges, even though she did not have “killer SAT scores,” “two moms,” or other attributes that she feels is necessary for acceptance at a top school.”

“But the student in question says she did not work hard, she expresses no particular intellectual interests, and she did not do well on her admissions tests.”

http://blog.sfgate.com/sfmoms/2013/04/04/high-school-senior-writes-scathing-letter-to-ivy-league-colleges-that-denied-her/

If this is the girl in question, she claims to have a 4.5 GPA, an SAT score of 2120, and experience as a U.S. Senate page. The point of her article was to highlight that academic achievement, and talent, are not the primary criteria for deciding admissions into these prestigious universities. It appears that the author of this blog post, and everyone in the comment section has fundamentally misunderstood the topic.

Joel April 9, 2013 at 4:25 pm

she also claims it is satire.

ymmv.

Mark Palko April 10, 2013 at 4:10 am

I don’t think there was ever any question that Weiss was being satiric (the Gawker article that started all this explicitly uses the term ‘satirizing’). The only point of dispute are the targets.

Here’s a passage that Caity Weaver singled out in Gawker

“….had I known two years ago what I know now, I would have gladly worn a headdress to school. Show me to any closet, and I would’ve happily come out of it. “Diversity!” I offer about as much diversity as a saltine cracker. If it were up to me, I would’ve been any of the diversities: Navajo, Pacific Islander, anything. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, I salute you and your 1/32 Cherokee heritage.”

Obviously irony for comic effect, but is this a subtle satire on the attitudes of the well-connected and well-to-do (check out Gawker for background) or is this not -so-subtle mockery of people who use disadvantaged status to get ahead?

Or, from the same source:

“I should’ve done what I knew was best—go to Africa, scoop up some suffering child, take a few pictures, and write my essays about how spending that afternoon with Kinto changed my life. Because everyone knows that if you don’t have anything difficult going on in your own life, you should just hop on a plane so you’re able to talk about what other people have to deal with.”

Certainly there’s a satiric point being being made but is it about the phoniness of those who got in or about the resentment of those who didn’t?

This whole op-ed is satiric, but it can still be an example of a member of the elite using satire to push back against reforms.

http://gawker.com/5993140/attention-students-just-being-yourself-isnt-a-skill-that-should-earn-you-admission-to-college

Avarragon April 9, 2013 at 6:29 pm

2120 is not particularly high for Ivy League schools. It’s perhaps a bit below average for those without anything else to offer. The term “4.5 GPA” is meaningless without the context of her academics and the weighting system used. I think the Senate page program is fairly prestigious (admittedly I haven’t read much about it) but that’s only a single thing. The point I am trying to make is that overall her accomplishments are nothing amazing, even if we only took into account academics.

Anyways, I actually /don’t/ think that the focus of the article was that academic achievement should be paramount. When you think about it, the only aspects of a college application that are academic in nature are test scores, grades, and maybe certain academically-centered extracurriculars like scientific research. She mocks “killer test scores”, doesn’t even mention grades (and grades are a horrible indicator of true intellectual merit anyways, what with grade inflation/people held to uneven standards across schools/rampant cheating), and also mocks extracurriculars.

Brett April 9, 2013 at 6:53 pm

Jon: Do you count me among those who misunderstood?

(I hadn’t quite finished my reply to Andrew’s reply above – I’m going to post it now.)

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