The Upper Middle Class as ‘Dream Hoarders’ in College Admissions

New book suggests that the upper middle class is stealing opportunity -- including in higher education -- from everyone else.

July 24, 2017

Richard A. Reeves has the odd misfortune of having his new book, Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in Its Dust, praised by a New York Times columnist, only to have the column containing the praise be widely mocked.

David Brooks, the columnist, interrupted a discussion of the book in his column to talk about how he accidentally embarrassed a friend without a college education when he took her to a sandwich shop where she didn't recognize the various names of gourmet meats. That's the thing that was mocked. But those in college admissions shouldn't be misled to think that the book focuses on upscale menus. It in fact focuses quite a bit on college admissions and paying for college -- and suggests that educators and upper-middle-class parents are frequently blind to the advantages they have.

Reeves is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institutions (Brookings's press published the book). It has received much praise (see these reviews) and also some criticism.

In the book, Reeves defines upper middle class as the top 20 percent of the income levels in the United States, shifting the focus away from the debate over the "1 percenters" and everyone else, a division popularized in recent years by the Occupy movement and the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. It's not that Reeves doesn't think those at the very top don't have enormous advantages, but that it is the upper middle class combined with the 1 percenters who are taking too large a share of resources -- including seats in college.

Here are some of the practices he criticizes in college admissions and finance:

  • Early decision. He writes that those who know they will rely on financial aid can't afford to commit to a college, and that many colleges favor early applicants because they know they will enroll if admitted. As colleges admit larger and larger shares of their classes early (some are up to 50 percent), the advantage to the wealthy grows, Reeves writes. (For a recent exchange on the topic in Inside Higher Ed, see essays by Harold Levy calling for colleges to abandon early decision and by Robert Massa defending the practice.)
  • Legacy admissions. Reeves says that this is a flat-out advantage that comes from the good fortune of being born to parents who went to good colleges. And he writes that this is different from many other advantages of the upper middle class, such as parents able and willing to spend time (or hire tutors) to enhance a child's education. "This isn't Dad helping us by playing catch in the backyard. This is Dad bribing the coach," he writes. Reeves notes that many people, even liberals on the lookout for class advantages to oppose, are "relaxed" about this practice. While legacy applicants tend to be well prepared (in part by virtue of other advantages), he notes that their admit rates are more than twice the admit rates for other applicants at Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Yale Universities.
  • Private counselors. Parents of means pay thousands of dollars for help on the admissions process, frequently from counselors who boast that they used to work in admissions offices.
  • Tax breaks. The book opens with a discussion of how President Obama in 2015 proposed -- and days later withdrew -- a plan to end the tax breaks on 529 college savings plans. Obama administration officials noted that more than 70 percent of those benefiting from the tax break had family incomes over $200,000, but opposition (from Democrats and Republicans alike) was so intense the president had to back down. Obama, Reeves writes, "had underestimated the wrath of the American upper middle class."
  • Free college. Reeves is solidly with critics of plans like that enacted in New York State that may help low-income families, but will help plenty of upper-income families as well. "Free college is a terrible idea; in practice it would be yet another boondoggle for the upper middle class," he writes. More state support for higher education -- including vocational programs at community colleges -- would do more to promote equity than will free tuition, he adds.



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