Tag Archives: college

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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Several attacks on the previous post

As promised, a few attacks.  I’m sure by tomorrow I’ll have thought of several more.  Oh, and also, I meant to link to this Crooked Timber thread about Coursera, with a richly combative comment thread.

  • I, along with lots of other people who succeed in traditional schools, love text and process it really fast.  Other people like other media.  Streaming video isn’t the same thing as talking to another person, but it’s plainly closer than text, and talking to another person is the way we’re built to take in information.  If streaming video weren’t a useful means of educational transmission for a substantial fraction of people, Khan Academy wouldn’t be popular.
  • Some people would say that we could get by with many fewer scientists that we have now, without compromising the amount of meaningful science that gets done.  That seems too simple to me, but I just want to record that it’s a belief held by many, and on that account maybe a small NSF-funded garden of science is sufficient to our needs.
  • Online credentials, whether from Udacity or future-ETS, could in principle lead to a massive gain in global equality.  Nothing is stopping 300 people from China and Brazil from being among the 500 people Google hires.  I was going to say the same thing about inequality within the US but here I have to stop myself; my sense is that massive availability of online resources has not e.g. made it just as good to be a 14-year-old math star in Nebraska as it is to be a 14-year-old math star in suburban Boston.  Reader comments on this point welcome, since I know there are lots of former 14-year-old math stars out there.
  • More on within-US equality; it’s easy to see gains flowing to kids whose parents are rich enough to buy them a prep course or just buy them the time to spend a year at home studying.  On the other hand, this seems no less rich-kid-friendly than the current system, in which kids whose parents can afford college graduate debt-free, and the rest, who still have little choice but to attend if they want professional jobs, spend decades of their working life chipping away at a massive debt.
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