I don’t work at a finishing school

David Brooks, in the New York Times:

On the left, less viciously, we have elite universities that have become engines for the production of inequality. All that woke posturing is the professoriate’s attempt to mask the fact that they work at finishing schools where more students often come from the top 1 percent of earners than from the bottom 60 percent. Their graduates flock to insular neighborhoods in and around New York, D.C., San Francisco and a few other cities, have little contact with the rest of America and make everybody else feel scorned and invisible.

It’s fun to track down a fact. More from the top 1% than the bottom 60%! That certainly makes professoring sound like basically a grade-inflation concierge service for the wealthy with a few scholarship kids thrown in for flavor. But it’s interesting to try to track down the basis of a quantitative claim like this. Brooks says “more students often come,” which is hard to parse. He does, helpfully, provide a link (not all pundits do this!) to back up his claim.

Now the title of the linked NYT piece is “Some Colleges Have More Students From the Top 1 Percent Than the Bottom 60.” Some is a little different from often; how many colleges, exactly, are that badly income-skewed? The Times piece says 38, including five from the Ivy League. Thirty-eight colleges is… not actually that many! The list doesn’t include Harvard (15.1 from the 1%, 20.4 from the bottom 60%) or famously woke Oberlin (9.3/13.3) or Cornell (10.5/19.6) or MIT (5.7/23.4) or Berkeley (3.8/29.7) and it definitely doesn’t include the University of Wisconsin (1.6/27.3).

We can be more quantitative still! A couple of clicks from the Times article gets you to the paper they’re writing about, which helpfully has all its data in downloadable form. Their list has 2202 colleges. Of those, the number that have as many students from the top 1% as from the bottom 60% is 17. (The Times says 38, I know; the numbers in the authors’ database match what’s in their Feb 2020 paper but not what’s in the 2017 Times article.) The number which have even half as many 1%-ers as folks from the bottom 60% is only 64. But maybe those are the 64 elitest-snooty-tootiest colleges? Not really; a lot of them are small, expensive schools, like Bates, Colgate, Middlebury, Sarah Lawrence, Wake Forest, Vanderbilt — good places to go to school but not the ones whose faculty dominate The Discourse. The authors helpfully separate colleges into “tiers” — there are 173 schools in the tiers they label as “Ivy Plus,” “Other elite schools,” “Highly selective public,” and ‘Highly selective private.” All 17 of the schools with more 1% than 60% are in this group, as are 59 of the 64 with a ratio greater than 1/2. But still: of those 173 schools, the median ratio between “students in the top 1%” and “students in the bottom 60%: is 0.326; in other words, the typical such school has more than three times as many ordinary kids as it has Richie Riches.

Conclusion: I don’t think it is fair to characterize the data as saying that the elite universities of the US are “finishing schools where more students often come from the top 1 percent of earners than from the bottom 60 percent.”

On the other hand: of those 173 top-tier schools, 132 of them have more than half their students coming from the top 20% of the income distribution. UW–Madison draws almost two-fifths of its student body from that top quintile (household incomes of about $120K or more.) And only three out of those 173 have as many as 10% of their student body coming from the bottom quintile of the income distribution (UC-Irvine, UCLA, and Stony Brook.) The story about elite higher ed perpetuating inequality isn’t really about the kids of the hedge-fund jackpot winners and far-flung monarchs who spend four years learning critical race theory so they can work at a Gowanus nonprofit and eat locally-sourced brunch; it’s about the kids of the lawyers and the dentists and the high-end realtors, who are maybe also going to be lawyers and dentists and high-end realtors. And the students who are really shut out of elite education aren’t, as Brooks has it, the ones whose families earn the median income; they’re poor kids.

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7 thoughts on “I don’t work at a finishing school

  1. allenknutson says:

    Pro tip: stop reading Brooks. Life’s too short.

    (The website says Related: Hey, what’s that book you’re not reading? which I take as a sign to read something other than Brooks.)

  2. JSE says:

    I read Brooks because Brooks is in fact a good writer and a good storyteller who often lets his desire to tell a good story cause him to shade things that shouldn’t be shaded. There are many, many writers who say many, many wrong things that I don’t criticize on the blog because there’s no point, they’re not even trying to get things right.

  3. Shawn McHale says:

    I never realized that chemistry profs at Pomona spent their classes expressing their woke-ness. Thanks for telling me, David Brooks!

  4. Martin Karel says:

    The problems of the poor seem complicated. Sometimes, the lack of a suitable dream (for lack of a better word) can be overcome by someone taking an interest in the student. The helping hand can take many forms. I’m sure that there are many stories beyond those I know. Anyway, David Brooks strayed far from the truth.

  5. Peter Woit says:

    I’m no fan of David Brooks, but this is not a topic or set of numbers where he deserves criticism. The income distribution situation at elite universities in the US is completely grotesque, has gotten significantly worse in recent decades, and these universities are doing little to nothing about this.

    Taking a reasonable definition of “elite universities” to be the “Ivy-Plus” group of 12 universities used in the 2020 paper available at the page you link to, the numbers given there are
    Bottom 60%: 18.2%
    Top 1%: 14.5%
    Sure, 18.2 >14.5, but it’s outrageous that these two numbers are nearly the same. (and as Brooks accurately states, in some cases the Top 1% number is the highest). Elsewhere the “Bottom 50%” number is given as 13.5%, definitely less that the Top 1% number. Is the mistake Brooks made just using 60% instead of 50%?

    Some other related numbers:

    Ivy-Plus fraction of students in each parental income quintile:
    I 3.8%
    2 5.7%
    3 8.7%
    4 13.4%
    5 68.4%

    You may be able to defend yourself against the accusation that you work at a finishing school for well-off kids, but especially looking at this last number, I have more trouble doing so, and it bothers me.

  6. Universities are Evil says:

    Brooks wins this one by a knockout. The ratio of top-1 to lower-60 percenters is 50 times higher at the elite schools than in the general population.

    How high an annual family income makes one ineligible for financial aid at Harvard? It was about 180K fifteen years ago. I could go on with the statistics but you get the point, these differences are as strong as anything seen in social science. A hell of a lot stronger than the sorts of statistical differences (some of them imaginary) that recently set the country on fire for 5 months. As I recall academics were falling all over themselves to change practices once the protests started. But on the wealth and class front that would be a matter of conceding ground and a good deal of power to the Deplorables so the concerns have been oddly muted.

    The elite schools, and less extremely but (due to larger enrollment) at least as insidiously all the other places that do cognitive selection, are *tax-funded Social Darwinism factories*. They encourage not only social inequality but the biological kind, via assortative mating, creating a high IQ overclass. Does Mensa get a government subsidy? Should it get a supersized subsidy to upgrade its offerings to include a 4-year residential-recreational program with its own campuses, to keep the smarties physically near each other and far from the townies, to increase the chance the eugenics program succeeds? Because that (and fundraising) is the business Princeton is in, with some labs and classes off to the side.

  7. ventullo says:

    To pile on, social class extends beyond wealth. There is a whopping 33% acceptance rate for “legacy” applicants to Harvard, versus 4.5% for the general population. About 14% of all current students are “legacy”.

    It seems to me that any policy giving preferential treatment to the children of previous students is by definition preserving whatever biases admissions had in prior decades, whether that is a bias on wealth, race, religion, or any other inherited attribute.

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