The One Percent

The admissions landscape.

February 12, 2015

When we speak of the one percent, we mean the top one percent in financial capital. As I try to comprehend the landscape of US college admissions in the second decade of the twenty-first century, I think we need a serious discussion about the one percent in collegiate capital. The overlap of the two makes for a particularly powerful venn diagram of American oligarchy.

I expressly disagree with The Economist’s implication that selective breeding among the highly educated spawned smart children destined for elite admissions and affluent lives. Take those same genetic progeny striped of their parents’ greater familiarity with the byzantine landscape of high school curricula and standardized testing, and I suspect they would land at the local community college with those possessed of less impressive genetic imprimaturs.

I spent more hours than I care to count coming to grips with the SAT Subject Tests last week.  Back in my day, one took the ACT and/or the SAT. Those with the option to take AP tests took a few of them as well. Now, a whole new category of tests has entered the landscape.  If your child takes a subject in his or her first or second year of high school, then he or she may need to take the SAT subject test the following summer. No longer can students and parents take the first two years of high school to learn about the college process. Blink, and you may have blown it.

If this process were standardized, such as the UK’s GCSEs at 16, the propensity to favor those already favored by birth would not be so great. Every British school child knows the GCSEs loom on the horizon and have a role to play in their academic choices to follow. Similarly, university admissions based upon a German Abitur, British A levels, or a French Baccalaureate have the disadvantage of their all or nothing status, but at least everyone knows what is at stake.

My husband remarked last week that I must rank among the top one percent of those who understand the US academic system.  I suspect he is right, and it increases my horror. If it took me days to grapple with the distinctions among four varieties of exam and when a student ought take them, what hope does a mother working two jobs for hourly wages possibly have to guide her child?  What hope does my child or hers have of deciphering the system unaided?

As I read about the exam options, I shared what I gleaned with a friend whose son attends a private school. One would think high tuition covers extra advice on such matters.  By contrast, the private school had offered less information than my son’s public school. I suspect the private school assumes their well-heeled parents already know how to work the system, and I fear they are right.  This leaves students who earn merit scholarships to such institutions little better off than those attending local schools with overtaxed counselors.

As American universities seek to make good on meritocratic promises, Posse, Questbridge, and others attempt to share the cultural capital first generation students lack compared to those born into the Ivy League. Such programs expand the luck of birth to a few more students who find their way into such organizations’ orbit. However, knowledge that a score of students from a given metropole make it to an elite institution should not allow us to accept the contingency of college access.

American education has a test addiction.  I can’t offer a full twelve step program to wean us. However, I can make the first, all-important step to acknowledge we have a problem.


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