Last week at a Council of Foreign Relations event on the “history maker” Lawrence Summers, former Treasury Secretary and former President of Harvard University, the main event, Mr. Summers himself said that:
It is really a tragedy that if you look in the United States today… rich dumb kids are much more likely to go to good universities than poor smart kids.
Mr. Summers appears to have been referring to the work of Peter Schmidt, deputy editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education who wrote the book Color and Money: How Rich White Kids Are Winning the War Over College Affirmative Action.
Mr. Summers identified this as the largest problem in higher education today. Part of the reason must be that he sees this as one of the root causes of the problem The Economist identified prominently in 2004 [subscription required] – that America is less socially mobile than it was a generation ago, and has fallen behind Europe in allowing social classes to become more stratified. The children of the rich are more likely to be rich, and the children of the poor and middle class are less likely to move beyond their class than those in Europe. The Economist posited that part of this effect might be due to the rise of meritocracy in America: as those with more talent were given greater opportunity (especially as a result of the institutionalization of standardized testing), their children have genetic as well as financial advantages, and so are more likely to maintain their social position in a society that rewards talent. Despite this possibility, The Economist still sees the trend as disturbing.
Mr. Summers seems to agree. He believes the top educational priority of the next president should be to even out the admissions process at the elite colleges.
Just as a matter of historical what-if: imagine a world where the rich and “legacy” admissions did not guarantee George W. Bush entrance into Yale, with his mediocre school records.
The elite colleges represent real advantages for those individuals who seek to attain the highest political and business positions. Our past three presidents have all been graduates of Ivy league institutions. (As a matter of fact, all three were products of the Yale university system.) Beyond the Ivy League, the United States has only elected one new president who was not a graduate of a top university or military academy since the 1920s – Ronald Reagan.
The stratification of American society is a big deal – and one that no candidate is talking about. Even John Edwards, the champion of the little guy, focused more on eliminating poverty – a worthy goal certainly – than on the growing gap between the rich and the rest of us.
N.B. I know from my experience – as a middle class kid at a top college – that a significant number of my peers seemed to have gotten into Holy Cross based on financial factors alone. Many of these people saw attendance at an elite college as something owed to them. Tom Wolfe, an author of limited scope and insight, made the same point rather well in his I am Charlotte Simmons, which, though winning “Most Awkward Sex Scene(s) of 2005” was still George W. Bush’s favorite book of that year.