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How college is helping to create a class divide in America (essay)

We usually think of college as providing a boost up the class ladder. That is what it did for a generation or more of Americans, particularly from the 1950s through the 1970s. But since around 1980, college has actually calcified class in America.

That’s one upshot of Tamara Draut’s new book, Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America (Doubleday, 2016). She explains how the central divide between the working class and the middle class now is college. Not that things are entirely rosy for those with bachelor’s degrees, but those without degrees have experienced a more severe pinch, with proportionately shrinking wages, degraded conditions, few job protections and general insecurity.

Moreover, contrary to college standing as an open thoroughfare for Americans wanting to rise, it has become a gated toll road primarily available to those from middle-class and upper-class families. Those who have gone to college beget those who go to college: if your parents didn’t go to college, you are much more likely to work at or near minimum wage. Only about 9 percent of those from the lowest quartile of wealth complete college degrees, whereas about three-quarters from the top quartile do.

A key impediment has been the exponential rise of tuition prices since the 1970s, at several times the rate of inflation, correlated with the reduction of public support, which in turn has brought the steep increase in student debt and student work hours.

This has produced what Draut called in an earlier essay “The Growing College Gap,” in Inequality Matters: The Growing Economic Divide in America and Its Poisonous Consequences. We usually think that we have seen great progress if not solved the problem of racial inequality, but the enrollment gap between white students and black students was about 5 percent in 1970, whereas it had more than doubled, to 11 percent, in 2000. Similarly, Hispanic students have seen the gap widen from 5 to 13 percent. Affirmative action gets headlines, but we have actually gone backward in attaining racial equality in higher education.

One of Draut’s key insights is that the class divide is not just a matter of money but also one of culture. As she remarks, “When once a steelworker and an accountant could live on the same block, drive the same car, vacation at the same place and eat at the same restaurants, over the course of the 1980s, 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s” those from higher classes have little substantive contact with those from the working class except when they ring up their groceries or take care of their elderly relatives.

That has precipitated a public and political blindness to the new working class, even though it constitutes 60 percent of Americans. Rather than a silent majority, it is an invisible majority.

The cultural divide has two daunting consequences. Because those who work in journalism and other news media come from the upper, college-degreed cohort -- as Draut adduces, in 1971 only about half of journalists had B.A.s, whereas 92 percent do now -- they have little direct sense of the working class. Nor is there a strong interest to represent it in the main news organs, like The New York Times or The Washington Post, whose audiences are largely college educated.

In Draut’s analysis, after the 2008 crash, about half of the news focused on the banks, a third on the federal response, a fifth on businesses and only a smattering on working-class people who might have lost jobs or their houses. Rather, the Post ran a feature on a banker getting by on a reduction of her salary -- to $300,000 a year. Hard times indeed.

Similarly, those who work as congressional staffers come almost entirely from college backgrounds. Of high-level staffers, about half “attended private colleges for their undergraduate degree, including 10 percent who went to an Ivy League school.” They are typically the ones who get the internships inside the D.C. beltway, as well as can afford to carry the expenses of internships.

That has effectively shut the working class out of public representation or political power, even though it constitutes a majority. For Draut, the key is to change the narrative, popping what she calls the “class bubble.” One corrective is simply that we are not all middle class: most Americans are working class.

In addition, Sleeping Giant shows that the present working class no longer fits the iconic image of the construction worker in hard hat who had a union to speak for him. Instead, it is largely female, about half Latino and African-American, usually nonunionized, and struggling to make ends meet at or near minimum wage while laboring in home health care, fast food and retail, which have gained the bulk of new jobs.

Since college is a key class marker, it’s easy to blame higher education itself as the problem. But for Draut the problem lies in the policies that have drained equal opportunity from it and segregated it, and in turn she advocates policies to enhance public higher education, notably reducing tuition fees and eliminating student debt. In this, she differs from the diagnosis of John Marsh, who argues in Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality (Monthly Review, 2011), that college has been overemphasized and offers a false solution, so we should pare back college attendance.

Draut herself was a working-class beneficiary of higher education: the daughter of a steelworker, she went to a public university near home in Ohio, which sent her on her way to a job in advertising, then with Planned Parenthood, and since 2001 with Demos, a progressive think tank, where she started as a researcher and is currently a vice president.

Demos was founded in the 1990s as a counterweight to the many conservative think tanks, and it has produced reports such as “The Great Cost Shift,” about the draining of public support for higher education, and “The College Compact,” about enhancing public support. Draut first worked on studies of credit-card and student loan debt, which spurred her earlier exposé, Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead (Doubleday, 2006).

She learned a lesson from the battle over credit cards. In seeking reform, as she recalled in an interview with me, “there’s a beltway mentality, ‘Well, that’s never going to happen; we’re never going to regulate the credit-card companies.’” But she proudly attended the 2009 signing of the Credit Card Act, which regulates rates and fees and has helped those in debt. As she quipped, “I got the last laugh on that one,” and she sees the same possibility for higher education: “Debt-free college is now a real idea and part of the political debate.”

That’s one salutary reminder we can take from Draut: it might be a long road, but good ideas that seem unrealistic at one moment can win their day. In academic scholarship, we typically focus on conceptual problems, commenting on one and moving onto the next, and in fact we are continually looking for what’s new or next. But in politics, change sometimes seems glacial, and one has to be dogged. It’s useful to keep in mind that massive student debt is only a recent development, arising since the 1980s, and 10 years ago, the idea of abolishing it or enacting free public higher education were considered pie-in-the-sky proposals. But they’re on the agenda now, and we have to keep working to accrue the data, build the narratives and devise policies that aim toward more equality.

Jeffrey J. Williams is a professor of English and of literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University. His most recent book is How to Be an Intellectual: Essays on Criticism, Culture, and the University (Fordham University Press, 2014).

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Study: Campus scandals can depress application numbers

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A new working paper finds that incidents of murder, sexual assault, hazing and cheating can deter students from applying.

Provost change provokes debate at Temple U

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Temple makes a sudden change after $22 million in overspending on financial aid. But faculty members object to what they see as a lack of information and disrespect for an academic leader many respect.

Fallout at Northern Iowa From Saudi Scholarship Shift

Recent events at the University of Northern Iowa may illustrate the impact of changes in the Saudi government's rules on eligibility for a generous scholarship program that has boosted enrollment of students from Saudi Arabia at many American colleges and universities. The rules generally make it more difficult to win scholarships to programs or colleges that are not near the top of the rankings. Many have wondered what the impact would be on colleges that have welcomed Saudi scholarship students but who may not be eligible for the scholarships going forward.

The Des Moines Register reported that as of May, the University of Northern Iowa had received four applications from Saudi Arabia. At the same point last year, the university had received 94 applications. Saudi students are the top group among the university's foreign students, and account for $3.5 million in tuition revenue.

U Chicago Will Let Applicants Self-Report Test Scores

The University of Chicago has announced that it will allow applicants to self-report their SAT or ACT scores. Only accepted applicants who opt to enroll will be required to have an official score report sent to the university. James G. Nondorf, vice president for enrollment and student advancement and dean of college admissions and financial aid, said the policy has been suggested to the university by high school counselors and others as a way to help low-income students. The registration fees for both the SAT and the ACT cover four score reports to colleges, but students must pay more for additional deliveries. (The College Board allows those eligible for fee waivers to send out eight score reports free.)

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ACT Changes Scoring Scale on Writing Test

ACT announced Tuesday that it is changing the scoring for its writing test. ACT has been using a 1-36 scale, consistent with other parts of the test. But citing "confusion among users," ACT is changing to a 2-12 scale. The test itself is not changing.

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Questions Raised About 2 Items on SAT

Some SAT tutors who took the exam in May are raising questions about whether two items promoted stereotypes about women that may have hurt female students taking the test, The New York Times reported. Critics cited the theory of "stereotype threat," which holds that exposing people to a stereotype can hurt their performance. College Board officials deny that the items are problematic and say they found that female test takers in May did not score differently than they typically do.

One math question featured a chart showing that there are more boys than girls in math classes. Part of the writing test featured two historic essays, one of which argued that men have more stature than women and that the role for women is in the home.

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The problems with Justice Anthony Kennedy's opinion in the Fisher II case (essay)

In U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s 4 to 3 majority opinion in Fisher v. University of Texas, in which he upheld racial preferences in college admissions, he recalls that the court has said that enrolling a diverse student body “promotes cross-racial understanding, helps to break down racial stereotypes and enables students to better understand persons of different races.” Equally important, according to the court’s previous decisions, “student body diversity promotes learning outcomes and better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce and society.”

Unfortunately, Justice Kennedy’s decision significantly undermines the very goals the court hopes to achieve. Also unfortunate is that his memory is conveniently selective: he seems to have forgotten much of what he himself wrote in 2013’s Fisher I decision.

That’s a shame, because the country seemed ready to finally put an end to government discrimination on the basis of race and to have it start judging all people on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, as Martin Luther King Jr. admonished. The court has long suggested racial preferences in admissions were temporary, and in Fisher I, Justice Kennedy set the stage to finally end them. In that opinion, he wrote: “Judicial review must begin from the position that ‘any official action that treats a person differently on account of his race or ethnic origin is inherently suspect.’”

Justice Kennedy also wrote, “Courts must apply strict scrutiny to racial preferences, which must be narrowly tailored and used only if the same goals can't be met with race-neutral means.” In Fisher I, Justice Kennedy explicitly rejected the court of appeals approach of giving deference to the University of Texas and remanded the case, instructing the court of appeals to properly apply strict scrutiny -- which, according to Justice Kennedy at that time, meant that it was to be applied without deference to UT’s claims and unsupported conclusions. That is, UT had the burden to prove that race-conscious admissions were the least restrictive means possible for achieving its diversity goals. Moreover, Justice Kennedy had previously written, in a different case: “Classifying and assigning students” according to race “requires more than … an amorphous end to justify it.”

As Justice Samuel A. Alito noted in his dissent in Fisher II, something strange has happened since Fisher I. Something strange indeed. Under Justice Kennedy’s mercurial race jurisprudence, he has decided in Fisher II that UT is entitled to considerable deference with respect to intangibles like diversity. UT did not prove that race-conscious admissions are the only way that it could achieve diversity, and it also did not clearly articulate the goals that its admissions process is designed to achieve. Nevertheless, Justice Kennedy decided that UT’s use of racial preferences in admissions is constitutional.

I am afraid that this decision will continue the pernicious questioning that hangs over legally favored minority students (nonfavored minority students, such as Asian students, get no preference): Were they admitted to a prestigious university because of their ability or because of their skin color?

Also, similar questions will continue to be asked by every nonfavored minority student and majority student who is not accepted: Were they rejected because of their ability or because of their skin color? Today, given the politically correct atmosphere, especially on campuses, these questions are often unspoken. Nevertheless, people are not only asking them but, in many cases, answering them for themselves in the affirmative -- thereby perhaps diminishing someone’s achievements without reason. The fact that these judgments are unspoken makes them no less devastating to the very goals the court hopes diversity will achieve. As a result of Justice Kennedy’s opinion, these questions continue to be legitimate and relevant, even though they should not be.

In the Fisher cases, Abigail Fisher contends that UT rejected her because she is white. The university uses a holistic approach to admissions in which race is one of the considered factors.

In Fisher I, the court ruled 7 to 1 that race-conscious admissions are subject to strict scrutiny and sent the case back to the court of appeals for the proper application of that standard. As noted, the court demanded that UT prove that its race-conscious admissions process is the least restrictive means available to achieve diversity. But UT has had great success in increasing diversity with a race-neutral top 10 percent program, which automatically admits students in the top 10 percent of their high school class. Because of that, it seemed unlikely that a race-conscious plan would be held to be constitutional.

However, after rehearing the case, the court of appeals upheld UT’s race-conscious admissions standards, finding that UT had a legitimate interest in not only interracial diversity but also in intraracial diversity. Speaking plainly, the university claimed it needed to take race into account in order to admit minority students from affluent families because such students would be more likely to succeed in college and help to dispel stereotyping than those admitted under the percent program (who often come from racially segregated high schools).

In other words, UT assumed that students in the top 10 percent of predominantly black high schools would not have as strong a likelihood of succeeding in college as those from other high schools. This type of race-based discrimination and stereotyping is, of course, exactly what the Equal Protection Clause is meant to prevent.

Nevertheless, Justice Kennedy’s opinion does not address either the percent plan or the new intraracial justification for considering race in admissions that was argued in the court of appeals. Rather, he has now determined that the data on the percent plan was inadequate in 2008, when Abigail Fisher was rejected, to determine its success in achieving diversity.

That means that UT’s admissions policy that is applicable today may or may not be constitutional. The technical constitutional issue is whether the plan passes the strict scrutiny standard of constitutional review. Typically, this standard is strict in theory, but fatal in fact. Specifically, because UT did not produce the data necessary to establish that the percent plan was not adequate, and that a race-conscious plan was necessary to achieve diversity, the race-conscious plan should have failed the strict scrutiny standard. That is why most experts expected the court to find that the Texas plan was unconstitutional. However, Justice Kennedy concluded that the Texas plan, the holistic review where race is a “factor of a factor of a factor,” is in fact narrowly tailored enough, based solely on the newfound deference that he now says is due to UT, to pass strict scrutiny analysis.

The strict scrutiny test has two parts. The first requires that the interest to be served by the challenged practice (in this case, race-conscious admissions standards that give a boost to certain candidates because of their race) involve a compelling state interest. The second requirement is that the means to achieve that compelling state interest (in this case, race-conscious admissions standards) must be the least restrictive means possible.

There’s no question that a diverse student body is a compelling state interest. The issue in Fisher I and II was whether the race-conscious plan was necessary to achieve a diverse student body. If diversity could be achieved with a race-neutral plan (the top 10 percent plan or some other race-neutral approach) then any race-conscious plan would not be necessary to achieve the compelling state interest and therefore would have been unconstitutional. Yet the court simply offered no guidance on this issue.

Justice Kennedy states that UT must regularly evaluate its student body data and the experiences of its students and tailor its admissions approach in light of changing circumstances in order to ensure that race plays no greater role than is necessary to meet its compelling interest in a diverse student body. However, under the new deference standard, this requirement is essentially meaningless. UT basically told the court, as it did in Fisher I, that the court should essentially “trust us,” despite the fact “we cannot prove it or explain how, we nevertheless know when racial preferences are necessary and we will know when they are no longer necessary.” This time, the changeable Justice Kennedy has decided to trust them.

The inherent problem with affirmative action is that it claims that race is a legitimate basis upon which to judge someone, while the Constitution says that it is not. Ultimately, the court will recognize that race can never be used by public institutions in making admissions decisions. But Justice Kennedy’s newfound reluctance to recognize this fact in Fisher II has unnecessarily postponed that day.

George A. Nation III is a professor of law and business at Lehigh University.

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The Fisher case on affirmative action reflects the strength of our democracy (essay)

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling of 4 to 3 in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin was a close call. For months, supporters of affirmative action in higher education were worried that a majority of the justices would find the University of Texas’ race-conscious affirmative action plan unconstitutional. Opponents were worried about just the opposite. The court upheld affirmative action, as it has done in all the major college affirmative action cases since 1978. So why was it such a closely watched case?

Fisher comes at a moment in history defined by our first black president, as well as by discussions of whether race still matters in public life. It also arrives during a long shift in the debates over how best to address issues of equality of educational opportunity -- whether through the equity-focused policies of the civil rights era or the test- and achievement-focused policies of today.

In her majority opinion in the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor suggested that increasing access to higher education through affirmative action is justified by a commitment to a diverse democracy. But opposing camps in the affirmative action debate may have divergent interpretations about what a “diverse” democracy means. To improve the democratic dialogue about affirmative action, stakeholders in the policy process must understand the moral and political beliefs underpinning the terms of the debate.

Although I am a strong supporter of affirmative action, I believe the measured compromises coming out of major college affirmative action rulings over the past 40 years exemplify the strength of our democracy. The debate over affirmative action is an example of an enduring moral disagreement, one that is characterized by different interpretations and emphases of key democratic ideals and values such as equality, liberty and diversity.

After all, the court had previously decided that narrowly tailored affirmative action plans are acceptable ways for universities to create diversity, and in this case, the court agreed with the university that race is “a factor of a factor of a factor.” And the preponderance of research evidence points toward affirmative action as fostering educational opportunities worth wanting as well as more racially and ethnically diverse educational institutions. But the disagreement about affirmative action has never been related to straightforward questions of evidence or what the law allows. If that were the case, then the 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision affirming the constitutionality of using race-conscious affirmative action admissions decisions ought to have put out the fires of controversy.

We in America often overlook an important part of these debates: moral and political disagreements are essential parts of democracy. Ideally they stimulate meaningful dialogue across difference so that those with opposing views can -- at the very least -- understand and respect other reasonable perspectives, or even more productively, move toward what Martin Benjamin calls integrity-preserving compromises over contentious policy issues. That is something that the candidates for president would do well to remember.

In fact, all of us, whatever side we come down on in the affirmative action debate, should remember that disagreements are inevitable in a democracy. The key to a thriving democracy is citizens’ ability to discuss those disagreements, to work to understand the values and beliefs that shape our differences. Democratic dialogue allows us to stand in others’ shoes and see one another’s humanity despite disagreement. Such dialogue is the heart of both education and democracy. Without it, the promise of democratic education and politics will remain unfulfilled.

Michele S. Moses is associate dean for graduate studies and professor of education philosophy and policy at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. She has studied affirmative action for 15 years and is the author of the recently published book Living With Moral Disagreement: The Enduring Controversy About Affirmative Action (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

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The Supreme Court made the right decision on Fisher (essay)

The U.S. Supreme Court finally drove a stake through the heart of the discredited claim by Abigail Fisher, a white student, that she was illegally discriminated against in her unsuccessful application in 2008 to the University of Texas at Austin.

Yesterday’s decision in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin let stand the trial court and Fifth Circuit opinions that had held she was treated fairly in her application. She was not admissible to the university through the top 10 percent plan that accords automatic admission to Texas high school students who graduate near the top of their classes. Nor was she admissible through special admissions full-file reviews. And it should be noted that, although whites constitute less than one-third of all K-12 enrollments in Texas, they make up more than half the students admitted to the university through either of these pathways.

Both the percent plan and the full-file review are nonracial approaches to admissions, and the court’s 2003 ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger held that an educational institution could consider an applicant’s race if it did so through such means. Why would UT be the only institution in the country ineligible to follow Grutter?

Fisher’s claim, which did not challenge the percent plan directly, still tried to have it both ways. Even if I cannot be admitted through a nonracial percent plan program, she was basically saying, and even if I am not qualified to be admitted through the discretionary option, I must have been denied my rightful place by less qualified students of color. This entitlement argument is the dictionary-perfect example of a claim of white privilege.

In yesterday’s ruling, the court held: “Considerable deference is owed to a university in defining those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission.” At the same time, it called on UT to regularly evaluate data and consider student experience in order to “tailor its approach in light of changing circumstances, ensuring that race plays no greater role than is necessary to meet its compelling interest. The university’s examination of the data it has acquired in the years since petitioner’s application, for these reasons, must proceed with full respect for the constraints imposed by the Equal Protection Clause. The type of data collected, and the manner in which it is considered, will have a significant bearing on how the university must shape its admissions policy to satisfy strict scrutiny in the years to come.”

No admissions policy since 1978’s Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision has prompted as much study and data analysis as has this series of cases and Fisher’s claim. And as with any comprehensive admissions policy, it will certainly continue to be evaluated.

This case has threatened to become like Dickens’s Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, dragging on for generations, but it is now time to move on. That is what I do when I lose cases, as in today’s disappointing Texas v. U.S. that allows a Brownsville federal judge’s improvident injunction of President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents programs. I will live to fight another day on this case, and Abigail Fisher and her lawyers should also give it a rest.

This decision restores constitutional order to college admissions, and the court should stop accepting such false claims. The last time a minority applicant of color successfully challenged admissions practices was, ironically, Sweatt v. Painter, more than 65 years ago, when the court examined and struck down the racial exclusion then practiced by the same institution.

Finally, through too many twists and turns, this applicant and her supporters have in essence laid a claim to minority status, even as their numbers belie any disadvantage. Fortunately, the court saw through to the truth of the matter. Affirmative action lives on, for now.

Michael A. Olivas is the Bates Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of Houston Law Center, where he teaches immigration law and higher education law, and interim president of the University of Houston Downtown. He was a consultant to the late Texas State Representative Irma Rangel, whose leadership led to the original percentage plan at the University of Texas.

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