Class Advantage

Scholar links the continuing economic divides in enrollments to the "adaptation" skills of the upper classes and the availability of spaces.
October 2, 2009

Between 1955 and 2005, college enrollments increased to 17.5 million from 2.6 million -- and the percentage of high school graduates seeking some higher education increased to 70 percent from 45 percent.

According to sociological theories of modernization, such a "massive expansion of higher education" should have disproportionately helped the less privileged in society, promoting their upward mobility, according to a paper just released in the American Sociological Review. But that didn't happen. And the paper -- by Sigal Alon, a sociologist at Tel Aviv University who has conducted extensive work on American college-going patterns -- suggests the reasons why.

The key factors, she writes, are that demand for higher education outpaced supply (even with all of that growth in available slots), that testing became a more important factor in admissions at more institutions, and that wealthier families are much speedier to adapt to changes in admissions rules.

While the findings make her sympathetic to some recent trends in admissions -- such as the movement to go SAT-optional -- they also leave her skeptical that such shifts will be enough to change class divides in higher education.

Alon's study is based on three large national surveys of students that provide data on what happened to the high school graduating classes of 1972, 1982 and 1992. She finds that much of the growth in enrollment of students of lower income socioeconomic groups came at two-year colleges, while gains at four-year institutions over all and selective four-year institutions were quite modest.

During the 1970s, she found, there was more progress, and this is a period when colleges that greatly expanded capacity (individually and in their entirety) during the 1960s to meet swelling enrollments found a dropoff in the number of new applicants. From the most elite institutions to open admission colleges, institutions became less competitive -- and the ability of low-income students to get in grew.

But from the 1980s on, that stopped happening. During that period, she writes, the trend was one of greater emphasis on standardized tests -- not just at the most competitive colleges, but across higher education. While this process was gradual and started before the 1980s, it took off then.

Looking over a longer period of time, she notes that in the 1950s, only a few hundred colleges even considered test scores in admissions, while doing so is the norm today. She suggests another comparison: Between 1947 and 2001, the number of enrolled students increased by seven times, while the number of SAT takers rose 70-fold. (She details evidence about the increasing weight given to test scores in admissions, a topic on which she has written previously, in an online supplement to the article. While the article isn't available online, the supplement is and may be found here.)

In more recent years, she notes, tutoring and coaching services have proliferated, and the correlation between SAT scores and family wealth has been consistent. Beyond the obvious economic issues at play, Alon writes that this is part of the sociological theory of "adaptation." Parents of all economic classes want their children to succeed, but the wealthier ones "better understand the postsecondary landscape and competitive admission process and they invest in resources to promote college attendance," she writes. As a result test score gaps of high school seniors -- grouped by economic background -- have grown during recent years.

Alon writes that as long as college admissions remains competitive, such trends will continue -- with wealthier parents finding ways to improve performance for their children, no matter what measures colleges use to sort applicants.

As a result, she predicts that if more colleges go SAT-optional, which many colleges report has led to increases in applications from and admission of a more socioeconomically diverse set of students, that increased diversity may not last. "Providing that the demand for postsecondary education surpasses the supply of slots, exclusion of some sort will persist as institutions look to screen swelling applicant pools. Under such conditions, the covert process of adaptation will continue to promote the expansion of class inequality," Alon writes.

Her solution? Class-based affirmative action, in which current and future adaptation by wealthy families is balanced by an admissions edge given to those without the means to match those advantages.

"By offsetting the depressing effect of home disadvantages on test scores, an edge in admission to low-[socioeconomic status] seniors will merely match the competitive advantages that accrue to the privileged through adaptation," she writes. "Those most damaged by adaptation, talented underprivileged seniors, would benefit the most from a policy that cultivates dreams, aspirations, and ambitions for a type of education that is beyond reach without preferential treatment."

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