Affirmative action

By Jason Wojciechowski on August 14, 2003 at 5:19 AM

Amitai Etzioni has this note about where students at America's most selective colleges come from, in terms of socioeconomic levels of their families.

I don't want to be represented as anti-black or anti-Latino or anything, but Etzioni makes a good point: these schools are not making the effort to help break the cycle of poverty. If they make affirmative-action-style decisions based on socioeconomic level rather than ethnicity, the (sad) fact is that they'll get more ethnic diversity as a side effect.

Of course, it can't lie entirely with the universities, either. Large portions of the poor populations of this country are simply not prepared to go to college. To ask Harvard to admit some kid because (s)he is poor isn't really fair to Harvard if that kid has had a typical crappy public school experience.
(S)He probably doesn't know how to write very well, is way behind in math, has no study skills, and so on. Why? Because their parents couldn't afford private schools and tutors and living in nice suburban neighborhoods where the schools are just as good as private schools.

On the other hand, there are kids who can succeed in college but aren't getting noticed by the Yales of the world because of how much money they have and what schools they go to. Admissions officials at the selective schools don't visit poor schools, and you can't really blame them: they can't waste time and money when they might find one kid who they could bring into their school. Compare that to visiting Exeter, where their job is not to find kids who can go to Yale, but to convince kids that Yale is the place for them.

Even if a kid gets through all the hurdles of growing up poor and decides to apply to Yale, they're at a disadvantage for a couple reasons: first, their test scores probably aren't as high as applicants who have the same true qualifications but more money; second, a nice GPA at some school the admissions office has never heard of doesn't impress as much as a nice GPA at Andover; third, extracurriculars are harder to come by when you go to the kinds of schools that are common in the Bronx. The schools don't have the money to fund as many sports and clubs, and even if they did, many of these kids can't stick around after school: they have to go home and take care of younger siblings or other family members because their parent works and they can't afford day-care.

I don't know what the answer is. I don't know how to fix it. More money is necessary, because the facilities at many schools are simply unacceptable. More caring on the part of society at large is necessary, because otherwise the money either won't be there or will go to waste. More commitment to actually making a difference in the country by the big-time schools is necessary, because the Ivies sitting back on their laurels and taking kids from Andover and sending them on to businesses to follow their daddies isn't going to change anything.

Maybe these schools should be forced to take kids who aren't as prepared as their richer competitors. After all, if you want to justifiably wear the crown that says, "#1 School" on it, you've got to earn it by actually proving that you can educate anyone who walks through your doors, not by taking the same old kids and teaching them the same old ways and then quoting how much money they make through the old boys network.