'Tearing Down the Gates'

In a mix of individual students' stories and demographic analysis, a new book by Peter Sacks offers a critical analysis of the role of colleges in the class structure of the United States. Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education is being published this month by the University of California Press. The book urges colleges to pay much more attention to issues of class, and to breaking down class barriers.

May 9, 2007

In a mix of individual students' stories and demographic analysis, a new book by Peter Sacks offers a critical analysis of the role of colleges in the class structure of the United States. Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education is being published this month by the University of California Press. The book urges colleges to pay much more attention to issues of class, and to breaking down class barriers. Sacks is an author whose previous books were Generation X Goes to College (Open Court) and Standardized Minds: The High Price of America's Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It (Perseus). He recently responded to questions via e-mail about the themes of his new book.

Q: There is more discussion in academe about race than class. Why are you focused on class?

A: Americans tend to avoid talking about class. We’re supposedly the “classless” society where anybody can get ahead with enough hard work and intelligence. Although colleges and universities have led society in terms of affirmative action policies, higher education leaders have not confronted the class divide that permeates the education system from top to bottom. Class is the elephant in the room that we try to ignore. But we can’t ignore it if we’re going to make progress as a nation. Ironically we seem quite capable of talking about race, gender, and ethnic divides. But we don’t talk about the class divide and how it runs like a fault line throughout the education system, from pre-school through college.

We all know there is inequality in America. But higher education is the realm in which we as a nation have turned to as a Great Equalizer. With regard to the general social contract, the United States has settled on a system of relatively small government interventions to mitigate market inequalities compared to other advanced democracies in Europe. On the social spending scale, we are decidedly conservative.

But America’s great tradeoff in this regard has been the promise of equal educational opportunity. After the Second World War, presidents from Truman through Nixon held up the ideal of equal educational opportunity as a centerpiece of the American enterprise. We believed that higher education was so fundamental to our nation that federal and state policy would ensure that nobody would be denied higher education because of an inability to pay.

This uniquely American ideal -- the promise of equal educational opportunity -- is close to vanishing unless we change course. Education is becoming like health care and so many other aspects of American life where money rules the system. We are creating a system in which ability to pay is the main thing that separates those who go to college from those who don’t go to college.

Instead of a system of equal educational opportunity, we are creating a system of educational haves and have-nots that increasingly is based upon birthright. Yes, a system based upon class origins. For almost every measure of educational achievement and progress, the class divide between educational haves and have nots is getting worse -- and getting worse at a time when we can least afford to waste an ounce of human talent as we head into the 21st Century.

Over the past few decades, higher education leaders have confronted the notion of diversity in a sort of self-satisfied way. Not to pick exclusively on the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, but it’s a representative example of this phenomenon. The university led higher education establishment’s fight all the way to U.S. Supreme Court to defend affirmative action in selective admissions to its law school and undergraduate college. But while the university was trumpeting its commitment to diversity, it maintained a rather dismal record at enrolling lower-income students, as measured by the percentage of undergraduates eligible for Pell Grants. While UM President Mary Sue Coleman was making wonderful speeches about diversity, something like just 12 or 13 percent of Michigan’s undergraduates were receiving Pell Grants, ranking the public University of Michigan among the most elite private institutions on this measure.

It’s necessary and good to focus on diversity by race or ethnicity, of course. But higher education, particularly at the most elite level, has been so focused on race and ethnicity that it has lost sight, or perhaps rarely even acknowledged, that they have become homogenous along class lines. The data powerfully show that American higher education is highly stratified along class lines and has been getting more segmented in recent years. America’s most prestigious public and private universities have become havens of privilege for children born to well-educated and affluent parents. Non-selective public institutions and community colleges are where we put children from the lower classes.

While there is some evidence that higher education leaders are bothered by this growing stratification, the prevailing zeitgeist is that we accept these inequalities as the inevitable result of a merit-based system or one that colleges have no ability to do anything about.

Try, for example, to find data on enrollment patterns at major universities by parental income and education levels. Generally, such data are impossible to find because the universities don’t keep track or if they do, they don’t systematically report the data to the public. On the other hand, universities routinely report enrollment patters by gender, race or ethnicity. The entire higher education establishment sees diversity only through those lenses.

Focusing on class, however, makes universities far more uncomfortable, because doing to challenges to the core who they are and what they are about in terms of their admissions and financial aid systems, which are set up to reward students from middle and upper-middle class families -- of whatever race or ethnicity. In fact, I would argue that affirmative action has been primarily a policy that benefits affluent whites more than any other group. Affirmative action has permitted elite universities to enroll a modest number of underrepresented minorities -- predominately from the middle class -- for the sake of “diversity" -- while maintaining admissions and financial aid systems that are most likely to reward affluent whites.

Q: You note that a response from educators about enrollment policies is that their institutions are focused on rigor -- in other words they are elite educationally, not with regard to social class. How do you evaluate what kinds of elitism may be legitimate vs. just excuses?

A: This notion that the current competitive admissions paradigm is designed to maintain academic “rigor” is a red herring. Selective American colleges and universities, in effect, choose freshman on the basis of social class origins, disguised as system based on “rigor.” When colleges and their entrenched constituencies -- boards of trustees, alumni groups, etc. -- talk about maintaining academic rigor, this is thinly veiled code for remaining highly selective with regard to admissions, which yields high rankings on prestige-driven scales such as U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings of “Best Colleges.” This has nothing to do with how rigorous a course of study is, or how deeply a college or university engages students in math, literature, history, or science.

But it has everything to do with the socioeconomic profile of the freshman class. Selectivity is virtually defined by institutional average SAT scores, and so the SAT remains the most powerful mechanism by which elite institutions create a pool of “credible” candidates. Examine the College Board’s annual data on the relationship between SAT performance and the class status of students’ parents, measured by family income and parent education levels. The data are astounding, showing that high school seniors with highly educated and affluent parents can expect to score hundreds of points higher than students from far more modest social and economic backgrounds. For example, the average SAT score of students whose families earn between $30,000 and $40,000 a year is 1436. That’s compared to the average of 1656 for students whose parents earn $100,000 or more -- a 220-point difference.

Then consider that only an extra 50 or 100 points can mean a student is considered among the pool of credible candidates, a process that eliminates thousands of potentially viable candidates from lower-income families and an untold amount of human talent. I say potentially viable because colleges and universities have not done a very good job at quantifying or accounting for other sorts of cognitive, non-cognitive or behavioral traits that predict success in college.

Rather, higher education has been sold a marketing package from the SAT industry that says SAT scores combined with high school grades yields the best prediction of success. However, the SAT adds very little to what could be predicted based upon prior academic performance in high school.

I would also add that several institutions that have actually confronted this question if rigor, including Bates, Sarah Lawrence, and the University of Texas at Austin, would vehemently disagree with the claim that academic rigor has suffered when they have de-emphasized or eliminated the SAT requirement in their admissions process.

Q: Many colleges say that they will be unable to admit truly diverse classes until public schools are improved. Do you accept that argument?

A: Let me be clear. We can’t put the entire burden of America’s increasingly stratified system of higher education entirely on the colleges and universities. They reflect and reinforce the inequalities that exist in the larger society, including the unequal system elementary and secondary schooling. Still, it’s a rather convenient excuse for colleges and universities to blame schools. There’s a lot that higher education can do to diminish the barriers of opportunity along class lines, first by paying far more attention to it, because class barriers in higher education are proving to be persistent and self-perpetuating.

The vicious cycle has to be broken and all sorts of American institutions have a role and a responsibility to help break it. We can’t simply blame schools. We know from decades of social research that the major source of the educational achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged groups stems from social class differences at the level of individuals and families. This means that public policy aimed at improving the economic prospects of families can’t be separated from educational policy. This is why federal efforts such as the No Child Left Behind law, aimed at holding schools accountable with high stakes testing, are so misguided. It simply addresses the educational symptoms created by vast social and economic inequality.

But schools can play important roles in ways that may surprise us. Inadequate academic preparation of lower income kids for college may also be a symptom and not a cause. We may need to create mechanisms for schools to provide some of the sorts of social and cultural capital for kids that parents from middle and upper middle class households provide their children in the very air they breathe. Schools may need to play bigger roles as providers of cultural and social capital, helping disadvantaged children learn about colleges and universities from a young age and what it takes to get to college and succeed there, and what a life after college might actually be like. These are things that middle-class children learn from parents, siblings and grandparents, things that lower-income children never have a chance to learn.

Schools may be the only place for some kids to learn these things. Such children also need to know somewhere along their journey that higher education will be a reality for them if they work hard and stay in school, and this is where state, federal and institutional financial aid systems need to be improved to do away with “merit” based programs that don’t affect overall college attendance with need-based programs that do make college a reality for low-income families. Once low-income children acquire such social and cultural capital, then we’ll find that shortcomings in academic preparation may fix themselves.

Q: You note that Harvard University's decision on eliminating early decision is among a series of highly publicized moves by colleges. As you look at such moves on early decision, eliminating the need to borrow at elite privates and flagships, do you see real change taking place?

A: Such moves are certainly steps in the right direction. But they are half-measures. The efforts to ensure generous financial support for low-income students work because there are so few low-income students are admitted to these elite campuses, and the sorts of initiatives you cited above do little to change that. Harvard’s elimination of early decision will have limited impact. Harvard’s market power is such that applications, yield rates, enrollment patterns, etc. will hardly change as a consequence. So the move is merely symbolic. Perhaps there’s little chance that the most elite universities would entertain moves to place less emphasis on prestige-oriented measures of academic quality by opting out of the U.S. News & World Report survey, or revamping admissions systems. Efforts of that nature would foster real and potentially radical change, particularly if institutions like Harvard were to lead the way. But I’m not holding my breath. Such institutions have so much invested in the status-quo, and whose institutional endowments are rewarded so greatly from that status quo, that they have very little incentive to change.

Q: Are there colleges doing the right thing to open their gates?

A: Yes, I believe there are some colleges and universities that are taking these issues very seriously and acting upon a sincere motivation to change the way they do business.

For example, realizing that standard admissions formulas relying on high school grades and SAT scores didn’t adequately predict college performance, particularly for some minority groups, Oregon State University has implemented a structured questionnaire in its undergraduate admissions process to assess certain “non-cognitive” traits in students that predict academic success at the university. OSU’s approach is based upon research by William Sedlacek at the University of Maryland, whose research goes back many years showing that non-cognitive measures of motivation, self-concept, self-awareness, the ability to deal with adversity, and so on work as well or better than standardized tests for predicting performance in college. OSU is integrating the structured questionnaire as part of a holistic review process that includes traditional academic measures as well. And it’s working. The university is finding that scores on its questionnaire are strongly correlated to student retention.

In the University of California system, comprehensive review of all applications is now being implemented on all campuses, based upon the notion that a student’s academic identity is inseparable from his or her life growing up and the challenges a student has encountered in school, families and neighborhoods. An SAT score of a highly tutored child of a neurosurgeon growing up with every conceivable economic, social and cultural advantage really is a different animal than an SAT score of a student growing up in East LA with parents who never graduated from high school. Comprehensive review is merely a modest way a way to level the playing field.

The beauty of such efforts at OSU and the University of California is that institutions are changing their business practices for the sake of their own institutional well being because they are admitting more highly motivated and qualified students as a result.

Q: What are a few questions college presidents might ask to determine whether their institutions are taking these issues seriously?

A: I think there are several soul-searching questions that university presidents ought to be asking themselves at this juncture in the evolution of America’s higher education system. It’s one thing to say that economic diversity is a central tenet of the university, and it’s another thing to implement the institutional arrangements that can make it happen. Presidents should be asking themselves:

  • Are our admissions and financial aid systems excessively influenced by prestige-oriented factors designed to produce high rankings on college-surveys such as U.S. News & World Report?
  • Are we seriously trying to find other cognitive and non-cognitive traits in students that predict success in college other than SAT scores? Are we conducting studies to determine the effects on academic outcomes were we to eliminate the SAT requirement for college admissions?
  • Should we consider opting out of the U.S. News & World Report college rankings, which are based upon selectivity, and participate far more publicly in efforts to measure more substantively how well we engage students in teaching and learning? Are we willing to be publicly compared to other institutions on such performance outcomes?
  • Are we systematically accounting for our performance at enrolling a more socioeconomically diverse student body, and reporting those outcomes to the public?


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