Liberal Class Bigotry and its Consequences

It was the scandal of the decade in U.S. higher education. In 1998, Princeton University Press published The Shape of the River, billing the book as a powerful vindication of race-based affirmative action in college admissions. Six education scholars collaborated on the monograph, and the principal authors were William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton, and Derek Bok, former president of Harvard. The book presented a vigorous defense of race-based admissions preferences. But the authors shocked their fellow liberals by opposing gender-based affirmative action. (Administrators at nearly all top colleges stated that they did not practice gender-based affirmative action at the undergraduate level, but it was, and is, practiced in graduate schools, professional schools, and academic hiring.)

Of the reasons the authors gave for their stance, this one caused the most outrage:

Female students are less likely than male students of equivalent ability to complete their studies, attain professional or doctoral degrees, and earn high incomes.

Liberal activists and journalists were appalled by the claim that women could not qualify for affirmative action because they earned, on average, less money than men. On that basis, they pointed out, race-based affirmative action would have to be abolished as well.

The National Organization for Women organized protests against the book. The New York Times published a lead editorial, criticizing the authors for “blaming the victim” and “supporting discrimination against women.” In the same edition of the paper, columnist Maureen Dowd compared Bowen and Bok to “Gilligan and the Skipper stumbling around on deck, fighting a storm they should have seen coming.” For their part, the authors profusely apologized. They promised that future editions of The Shape of the River would contain language strongly supporting affirmative action based on gender at institutions at which women were underrepresented.

Actually, none of that happened. There was no scandal. The authors did not disparage women; they disparaged low-income people. Here is what they actually wrote, offering one of the many reasons why they opposed class-based affirmative action.

Students with low socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely than students of equivalent ability from high socioeconomic backgrounds to complete their studies, attain professional or doctoral degrees, and earn high incomes.

Journalists and academics failed to see any problem. Conservatives criticized The Shape of the River because it endorsed race-based affirmative action. Liberals defended it for the same reason. Neither side was bothered that Bowen, Bok, et al endorsed class bigotry. That omission is all the more disgraceful when you consider that statistics in the book revealed the urgent need for affirmative action based on class. The authors showed that only 12% of black students and only 1% of white students at the most selective colleges were of low socioeconomic status, as they defined the term.

Bowen, Bok, et al were right about race-based affirmative action, but their progressive credentials make their reactionary attitudes on class all the more insidious. Likewise, their class bias pollutes their support of affirmative action on race.

Nonetheless, the book became a major work on college admissions and, for liberals, the definitive text on college diversity. Consider the implications of that. No one in the academic elite or the media elite (there is, of course, considerable overlap) saw any problem with discrimination against working-class college applicants, excused by social profiling. Rarely in recent history has bigotry found such unanimous support—or such illustrious supporters.

Little has changed since the publication and reception of that book. Starting in 1999, I wrote pieces criticizing class bias in admissions, citing, among other examples, the statements about low-status applicants in The Shape of the River. I advocated that colleges expand affirmative action to include social class.

That was a new argument at the time. Authors such as Richard Kahlenberg called for replacing race-based affirmative action at the undergraduate level with a class-based version of the policy. Bowen, Bok, and nearly all other liberals argued for keeping the race-based version of the policy while rejecting affirmative action based on class. It was a sterile debate: no one would acknowledge that the best approach would consist of adding class to existing affirmative-action criteria.

I submitted those articles to every major liberal publication and all the minor ones I knew. In particular, I sent different versions of those pieces to The New York Times in 2001-02. There was an op-ed version as well as a full-length article. I also included the piece as a writing sample when pitching other pieces or requesting an assignment. No one at the NYT replied.

However, that paper did endorse the idea of combining class-based and race-based affirmative action in 2012. An editorial from November of that year stated:

For colleges and universities committed to diversity, the right way to think about class- and race-conscious admissions is as complements rather than alternatives. Both are essential for a truly diverse campus.

It was nice to see my innovative (if also obvious) proposal endorsed by The New York Times eleven years after I had first submitted it to that publication. But while the Times editorial board claimed to regard class-based affirmative action as “essential,” neither they nor the paper’s reporters have indicated that subsequently.

If they truly supported class-based affirmative action, they would pressure elite colleges to increase enrollment of low-income students dramatically. They would not credit a top college with achieving diversity unless its percentage of undergraduates receiving Pell Grants (federal scholarships for low- and middle-income students) was comparable to those of leading institutions that practice class-based affirmative action. At UC Berkeley, for instance, 36% of undergraduates were Pell recipients, at last federal count. Most top private institutions, including nearly all Ivy League ones, are in the teens or lower.

The percentage of wealthy students at top colleges is many times greater than that. A few years ago, I examined statistics posted on Harvard’s web site. Though the university’s annual cost of attendance was estimated at $52,652 for the 2011-12 academic year, approximately 40% of its undergraduates did not require any funding from the university’s need-based scholarship program.

But even if the Times were to start challenging top colleges on social exclusion now, the paper missed a crucial opportunity in 2001-02. Had the NYT addressed class discrimination then, other liberal outlets would have followed suit. Had journalists pointed out these inequities to the people, aggressively and persistently, the public might have demanded change.

Had such demands grown by the time the Democrats took over Congress in 2007, or the White House in 2009, we may have seen meaningful legislative proposals to combat social exclusion on campus. Imagine how much more advanced America’s thinking on class might be—and how much change might have resulted—had “the newspaper of record” and other liberal publications taken on the issue with vigor.

Of course, it is possible that the American public would have failed to act. It may well be that working-class and middle-class people will continue to accept the rule of the elite until the elite finish making this planet uninhabitable for humans. Even if we accept that as the most likely outcome, it would not absolve those who have the means of finding and revealing the truth from doing so—especially when they claim that it is their job.

Let’s bring the story of class bias up to the present. In March, I resigned my job at Washington University in St. Louis to protest blatant class bias in admissions at that tax-exempt institution. In an open letter of resignation, I offered detailed proof of bias, drawn from publicly available sources, linked in the letter. I sent the letter to countless media outlets, activist groups, and anyone I thought might help get the word out.

That didn’t go so well. The idea that working-class people have basic civil rights hasn’t caught on. Likewise, virtually no one in the media, however liberal, is interested in corporate welfare when it involves tax exemptions for wealthy colleges that discriminate based on class.

I did not expect The New York Times to concern itself with the problems of working-class people. But, in two of the paper’s articles, I noticed errors that exaggerated Washington University’s feeble commitments on the subject of social diversity. I submitted corrections to the Times. Editor Jane Karr initially refused to make the more important changes, which were a matter of arithmetic.

She also offered this elitist insult: “Good luck with any new venture. We see you’ve quit your job over this statistic, but we are comfortable with what we’ve written.” A few hours later, however, Karr corrected the more recent of the two articles.

There you have the response of elite liberals to invidious discrimination against working-class people. They ignore it. If they are compelled to take notice of it, their response is derision. I e-mailed the Times’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, about my correspondence with Karr and asked what he thought about her actions. He did not reply.

What do you think would have happened if a male editor at the NYT had mocked a woman who protested gender bias at a top college—especially if the root of the disagreement was an arithmetic fact about which the editor was wrong? I believe such an editor would have been fired, accompanied by considerable media comment about “mansplaining.”

Was Karr “bourgsplaining?” I’m guessing that wasn’t the only time she did so. There could hardly be a better example of the casual, reflexive hatred for working-class people that prevails at The New York Times. (You can read my response to her insult and to the Times’s failure to address discrimination against working-class people here.)

I thought there might be a chance that The Guardian would be interested in my story. Given the paper’s many apparently radical stances, its occasional discussions of social class in Britain, and its recent emphasis on U.S. issues, I hoped its editors would want to deal with the issue of class bias in American college admissions. Since The Guardian has been guilty of grossly overstating social diversity at Ivy League colleges, there is all the more reason to try to get things right now.

I wrote to numerous editors there, including Lee Glendinning, who advised me to contact reporter Amanda Holpuch. I did, but heard nothing further. I also pitched an article on my resignation to another editor, Jessica Reed. I received no reply from her. With almost no exceptions, media liberals do not consider class bigotry newsworthy, no matter how egregious or meticulously documented.

Why is that? Because working-class people do not fit liberals’ concept of the disadvantaged. I realize that the bourgeoisie is about exclusion. But excluding the most excluded people from reporting about the excluded is a bold gambit, even for a bourgeois.

Media liberals get away with that for the same reason that college administrators do: they know that they hold a monopoly on debate. Top media-makers are overwhelmingly drawn from expensive, socially exclusive, private colleges. They derive credibility from their association with those institutions, and, if they have children, are eager for them to be admitted. The last thing a typical New York journalist wants is for old alma mater to end biases toward the rich and well-connected, especially before the kids enroll. The ideology of privilege is so pervasive that the few top journalists who are not from the upper- or upper-middle class still follow the dominant viewpoint.

In most cases, however, the experience and influence of privilege are direct. In this post, I examined the stranglehold that graduates of private colleges possess on columnist jobs at The New York Times. You can also see the connections that bind the media-Ivy complex in this segment about Slate from my (rejected) 2009 book proposal.

Slate obtains its illustrators, technical staff, editorial assistants, and interns from a wide variety of colleges and universities. In the case of the editorial staff, the story is quite different. I have ascertained the educational backgrounds of 26 editors and writers at that magazine. Twenty-four attended colleges in the northeastern United States (defined as north of the Mason-Dixon Line, east of Ohio). Twenty, or 77%, graduated from Ivy League institutions and 16 (61%) went to Harvard or Yale. Another three hail from other private colleges—Guilford, Oberlin, and Swarthmore—and one of those holds a PhD from Harvard. Only three (12%) attended public universities: Rutgers in one case, and the University of Virginia in the other two.

However, two of the public university graduates had other advantages to play. Virginia alumnus John Dickerson is the son of Nancy Dickerson, a famous reporter and one-time vice president of the National Press Club. Likewise, the Rutgers graduate on the masthead happens to be Robert Pinsky, who atoned for his public-university bachelor’s degree by receiving a PhD from Stanford and by earning a reputation as a distinguished poet and literary scholar back when Slate was just a glint on Bill Gates’s computer screen.

The same pattern holds in the area of graduate and professional education. Of the magazine’s fourteen writers and editors who hold advanced degrees, eleven obtained them from private universities: six from Ivy League institutions, two from Stanford, and one each from M.I.T., the University of Chicago, and Warren Wilson College. The only public, domestic institution on the list is the University of California at Berkeley, and there are two foreign universities—Oxford and Cambridge.

Nearly all Slate contributors went to colleges where, with few exceptions, the working-class people are the ones tending the lawns or cleaning the bathrooms. When a magazine draws its talent from such a privileged group, the result is a narrow, warped perspective, no matter how many of the staffers describe themselves as liberals.

The circle of privilege shrinks further due to the effect of unpaid internships. Many top media outlets virtually insist that successful applicants have experience working without pay in New York City media. (I wrote about that here.) Top journalists and commentators, liberal and conservative, are overwhelmingly drawn from the most privileged sectors of the social elite. That elite is committed to protecting its privileges and to discriminating against working-class people. It is astonishing that the people allow such a narrow, hostile group to decide which issues are worthy of discussion.

The class bigotry of elite liberals has especially destructive consequences. A viable left requires working-class unity. Working-class unity requires knowledge of the effects of social class on daily life. Prejudice and discrimination against working-class people are the most easily understood examples of class difference in action. If we don’t talk about such cases, how will Americans ever understand class?

They won’t, and that is the point. That is why bourgeois liberals aggressively play up every form of identity politics except class. They only express concern for the disadvantaged when doing so poses no threat to their own economic privileges. They divide and conquer, and their tactics are heavy on posing.

Liberals at outlets such as The New York Times and The Guardian do more harm than any right-wing pundit could. With every article and opinion piece calling for fairness and diversity, but ignoring class, they discredit the idea that progressives care about working-class people. If you were wondering why there is no functioning left in America, you now have the answer.


Working-Class People in Higher Education: My Story, Part 3

After I graduated from the University of Virginia in 1991, I changed my career plans from law to academia. I was clearly better suited to the latter, and circumstances seemed favorable. There were many reports of a glut of lawyers on the labor market. Also, the early ’90s were a rare time when people expected a boom in academic hiring. Experts on the academic world predicted the boom based on two demographic facts: (a) many older professors would soon be retiring and (b) the Baby Boomers’ children would soon be going to college.

In the end, of course, the new golden age failed to arrive. When old profs retired, colleges cancelled some positions and hired many adjunct professors. For myself, I tried to overcome obstacles through hard work, but found a remarkable amount of corruption. I did meet professors who were honest, open-minded, and fair, but they were in the minority.

I obtained an MA in history at Virginia, specializing in modern European, and particularly British, political history. I wanted to continue to the PhD, and I applied to programs at other, higher rated institutions. Virginia was deficient in both funding and placement, and I wanted to give myself the best chance possible.

Over the next couple years, I wound up teaching community college to pay the bills and obtain experience. I applied to different PhD programs in history. I applied to institutions that had leading experts in my specialty fields, as well as overall prestige. On that basis, my first choice was Columbia University.

There was another reason that Columbia appealed to me. I wanted to get into non-academic writing as well. In fact, I had considered journalism school. But every J-school person I spoke to said that it was important to have experience, at least with student newspapers, before you applied. I had wanted to write for one of the two student papers at Virginia, but, for reasons I discussed in Part 2, I didn’t have time for any extracurricular activities.

Had I enrolled at Columbia, I would have had a home base in New York City. I planned to pursue summer internships at prominent newspapers and magazines. I figured that with clips, contacts, and an Ivy League doctorate, I would be able to publish writing on politics and particularly issues related to my academic expertise.

My grades and recommendations were excellent, and I achieved high scores on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). I ranked among the top 1% on the verbal test and on the history subject test. I believe my writing samples and personal statement were very strong. In the latter, I tried to show how adversity had made me relentless in my studies and enthusiastic about scholarship.

I was admitted to Columbia, but denied funding. I contacted the professors and tried to change their minds. They did not relent, but encouraged me to apply again later. After compiling some community-college teaching experience, I re-applied. I was admitted without funding again. So there is exactly one reason why I don’t have an Ivy League degree or experience at leading New York-based publications: I was not born rich.

I tried other graduate programs as well. Cornell rejected me outright. I inquired about the program at Brown, but the professor who would have been my advisor told me not to bother applying.

When I looked at the undergraduate institutions of the students who did enroll at Columbia, Cornell, and Brown, I noticed that a grossly disproportionate number had bachelor’s degrees from the Ivy League. No one has compiled detailed statistics on the social backgrounds of grad students at the Ivy League, but it has been clear for some time that those institutions are socially exclusive at the undergraduate level.

I wonder how many sons or daughters of manual laborers enrolled at Columbia’s Department of History during the 1990s, that alleged era of new-found diversity consciousness. Did it happen even once? I wonder about Brown and Cornell, too. What I can say is that of all the graduate students and professors whose backgrounds I came to know, none were working class. They were mostly upper-middle class, and that was especially true of Ivy Leaguers.

I was admitted with funding to the history PhD program at Washington University in St. Louis and enrolled in 1996. I suppose that Wash. U.’s defenders would say that the university deserves credit for admitting and funding someone from my background. But the truth is that the administration funds graduate students in history mainly to provide cheap grading and teaching assistance for the bourgeois Ivy Leaguers and Oxbridge grads on the faculty. History grad students at Wash. U. don’t really have the chance to rise to the same professional level as their professors, and the administrators know that.

Of course, I should never have gone to Wash. U. In my defense, the program’s placement efforts were more successful at the time. The academic job market got worse thereafter. Also, I knew that I never wanted to go into business. I had seen what standard business practice meant for workers like myself, my friends, and family members. I wanted to work to change that system, not join it.

As I entered the dissertation phase of the program at Wash. U., I decided that I needed to try to reach a wide, non-academic audience with writing on social class in America. No other writers dealt with that issue properly. I submitted a lot of articles and looked for better career alternatives than college teaching.

The Wash. U. history PhDs who got jobs tended to get them after years on the academic market. Even then, some became adjuncts or high-school teachers. Many of those who had to wait had someone to support them in the meantime. I didn’t. Also, those who landed tenure-track jobs generally wound up with bad jobs. They had low pay and heavy course loads that made writing of any kind difficult. Finally, I got hired as an archive assistant at Wash. U. Hey, it seemed like the best option at the time.

Over the years, I have sent countless submissions and pitches to publications around the English-speaking world. I’ve applied for many entry-level magazine/newspaper jobs, and tried to land research positions in the union movement and at progressive think tanks. Those applications were unsuccessful. I published a lot of articles in alternative publications, but never made any real money. If you look at the people who hold the paying positions in academia and the writing business, you will see a proliferation of Ivy Leaguers (and disproportionately preppies). Likewise, many paid writers previously held unpaid internships in NYC. I was locked out of that world due to my social class.

I don’t deny that I made mistakes, but my mistakes should not have been so costly. Had I been from the right social class, they would not have been considered mistakes at all. That is the issue.

I never wanted another working-class person to face the elitist barriers that stood in my way. But it happens all the time, and no major media outlet will take the matter seriously. Working-class people should not be so grossly under-represented in leading undergraduate and graduate programs. When we overcome obstacles and achieve at a high level, we should not be excluded because we “only” attended public institutions.

Access to a leading university should never be a matter of ability to pay—at either the undergraduate or graduate level. Nor should anyone have to take out loans to pay for higher education. It is now almost impossible to make a decent living in safe working conditions without a college degree. Making a profit off someone who needs access to college is the moral equivalent of charging a fee to exit a burning building.

Likewise, hiring and promotion decisions about people in their 30s and older should not be based on which colleges admitted them when they were teenagers, or which graduate schools admitted them when they were in their 20s. Success in landing paid writing gigs should not depend on attending an elite college or prep school, nor on working free internships in New York City while your parents pay your bills. Those means of determining fitness for top jobs were devised to keep those posts in the hands of a rich, well-connected elite. It is class bias hiding behind the terms “academic excellence” and “professional development.”

That problem is endemic to society, particularly in the class-ridden U.S.A. But the realms of academe and writing are ruled by class bigotry at its most fanatical.

If you’re a working-class person with stories to share about your experiences in higher education, please e-mail them to me at

Working-Class People in Higher Education: My Story, Part 2

I arrived at the University of Virginia in the fall of 1989, feeling backward but determined to catch up quickly. I imagine that Thomas Jefferson’s neoclassical architecture deeply affects everyone who attends that institution. (At first, I did not reflect on the role of slave labor in building the university; that came later.)

In my case, Jefferson’s “academical village” seemed the exact opposite of the impoverished, ramshackle life I had lived during the previous two years—and of the impoverished, ramshackle person I believed that I was. I wanted to transform myself, but there were limits.

I was still a fundamentalist Christian. Hardship often reinforces religious belief, especially when fear is deeply inculcated in the target (that seems the right word) at a young age. When circumstances seem hopeless, the thought of a lifeline from heaven can be appealing. And what if things are bad because you won’t stop sinning? My life had just started to work out. I figured I’d better not make God angry.

When I arrived at Virginia, I maintained the practice of praying on my knees before bed. I prayed for family, friends, and the members of the admissions committee that had seen fit to let me go to UVa. I prayed that I’d be good enough, and promised not to commit the sin of pride if the Lord helped me.

I was still a racist, too, but the hold of that poisonous system was weakening before I got to Charlottesville. My parents had painted a happy picture of segregation, but old newsreel footage shown on TV was sufficient to show that they were lying. My racism weakened gradually, becoming more subtle than my parents’ version. I still believed in the stereotypes of the black criminal and welfare cheat, for instance. And, if you knew me then, it would have been best if you didn’t get me started on immigration.

I double-majored in government and history. I had no time for extracurricular activities, because I took more than the standard course load per semester: 18-21 credit hours, rather than 15. I did that because I feared that my parents’ tenuous hold on solvency would slip, and that I would have to return to Tennessee and work to bail them out again. I wanted to get as close as possible to graduation while the home front was stable. Then, if I had to take a hardship leave from Virginia, I could return later and finish the degree quickly—maybe even in a summer. As it happened, my parents somehow managed to hold things together and I finished my degree on schedule, with lots of credit hours to spare.

Virginia was, and is, a class-ridden university. It was difficult being the only one who didn’t have a car, or whose clothes were threadbare. That was especially true around the stereotypical UVa. student, who was upper-middle class, possibly a preppie, maybe even southern gentry.

But I found no class barriers or pitfalls in my studies. I worked extremely hard, often reading and going over notes at the libraries until they closed, even on Fridays. I made A grades in most classes during my first set of mid-terms. That convinced me that I had arrived at exactly the right place.

The education was excellent. I developed a keen interest in modern European history, but I also learned a great deal about classical history, philosophy, and culture. Likewise, I was fascinated by the workings of law and government in the U.S. and Britain.

As my knowledge base expanded and my critical skills improved, I start hacking away at fundamentalism and racism. I learned that Christian scriptures fit poorly with science and history, that classical philosophy was better than Christian homilies. I learned how racism always leads to atrocities and how it is used to divide the poor. Those changes took longer than they should have. I kept looking for salvageable prejudices, compromises with reality. But, in the end, they all collapsed. It was freedom.

Since then, I have wanted to ensure that many people from my background would have similar experiences through higher education. Since then, I have been frustrated.

Recalling those experiences now, I remember that when “friends” teased me about my background, I would sometimes respond by trotting out old racist and fundamentalist views as a sort of put-on. As I saw it, I was giving them what they expected, and the joke was on them. Actually, the joke was on me. I should have just found better friends. I’m sorry to say that bad habit persisted for some years after graduation.

Speaking of graduation, I finished my BA studies on a high note. My grade-point-average was 3.88 on a 4-point scale, and 3.96 in major subjects. I wrote a thesis on 20th century British politics in the Department of Government and Foreign Affairs. It won the thesis prize, and the combination of thesis and grades allowed me to graduate with highest distinction. The director of the thesis program told me that no government major had previously received that honor in the several years he had been in charge.

So you can see why I decided to go into academia. I loved learning and felt that I had a mission to share my knowledge. I admired my professors and was grateful to them. I was nobody in the social world of UVa., but that fact had not hindered me even slightly in the academic sphere. I was sure that no field was more open to merit.

Working-Class People in Higher Education: My Story, Part 1

A few weeks ago, I encouraged working-class college applicants to share their experiences and challenge discriminatory practices. I guess I should start things off by describing my own background and education.

In my family, college wasn’t considered an option. My parents were manual laborers, like their parents and grandparents. Of all those ancestors, only one, my mother, finished high school. Only one of my grandparents finished elementary school.

There were two children in the home, me and a younger brother. During the 1970s, my family’s economic circumstances were at their peak. My parents had moved to California from Maryland in the ’60s and they both had union jobs.

We lived in a one-story house in Orange County. Wages were high enough and housing prices low enough that a couple with a typical working-class income could afford a nice, modest house, at least in inland areas. It’s not like that anymore.

For us, it was barely like that then. My parents were always wasteful with money. My father believed that prosperity was measured in cars. If you had multiple expensive cars, especially vintage Chevrolet sports cars, you were king. Debt, high mortgage payments, shabby clothes on your kids—those didn’t matter. Just make sure the kids do a good job washing and waxing the vehicles.

The public schools were good, especially before the effects of Proposition 13 kicked in. I was intellectually curious, but not a good student. My parents never told me the importance of education. They expected that I would attend school as long as it was free and legally required, then get a job. And when I looked at my parents, I saw that they had relatively good pay despite being largely uneducated. I had no idea that the egalitarian economy of mid-20th-century America was on its way out.

For my part, I didn’t like school. I was a scared kid. My parents abused me physically and I responded to bullying and other problems by withdrawing. Religious fundamentalism provided the motivation for many of the beatings and crazed parental outbursts. My mother belonged to an extreme evangelical sect called Free Holiness, and she saw any childlike unruliness as a plot engineered by the devil.

At the time, I internalized her fear of hellfire, and of the apocalypse she thought imminent. I also absorbed the racism that both parents taught me. My mother had grown up in segregated schools in Tennessee, pre-Brown, and had never really taken to integration. Both parents said that “Mexicans and Orientals” were taking over our country, and I figured they must be right. Looking back, I regret being so easily cowed by bullies (starting with my parents) and failing to reach for the learning, friendship, and enjoyment that were available at school.

Late in high school, I actually started enjoying classes, especially history and civics. I wanted to go to college and learn more, but had no concept what that entailed. After graduation, I took some community-college classes and did a lot better than I had in high school. I wanted to continue.

That was when my parents decided to move us to my mother’s native Appalachia. We were reverse Joads, fleeing relative prosperity in California. My mother terribly missed her (mostly evil) relatives and was sure that the Almighty was going to smite California because of all the sodomites, Hollywood sinners, and Catholic immigrants from Mexico.

So we moved to Tennessee, where the economy was dire and low-wage. My parents gave no thought to what they would do for work, what would become of their sons, anything really, all because Jesus would provide. We met many great people, but they all struggled economically. Welcome to the underclass.

We got by on the money my parents made by selling the house in California, plus some savings and the proceeds of labor provided by yours truly. For a while, I was the only one working. I had multiple part-time jobs and some of them were off the grid. My old man knew someone who paid cash for chopping firewood, clearing land, moving rock. I gave the money to my con-man father, who told me not to tell the others.

He insisted that we were beset by nothing worse than short-term liquidity problems. He had “pension stock” that he couldn’t sell at the moment, or other pools of wealth that he had to wait to access. Also, he was going to make a fortune off old Chevy cars that he always bought but never seemed to sell. When I saw The King of Marvin Gardens years later, I saw a lot of my father in the character of Jason Staebler, played by Bruce Dern. But when I was young, I accepted my dad’s lies and delusions for longer than I should have. Writing about my parents now, I am again amazed that I did not irrevocably sever ties with them until just a few years ago.

I alternated work with classes at UNC-Asheville. I had originally planned to live on campus, before I knew about our “liquidity problems.” I arranged my schedule to be entirely made up of Tuesday-Thursday classes, so I could commute from home and work as needed on other days. I was an A/B student. I could have done better, but I was frequently tired from work. Also, I increasingly worried that I would never get to graduate. The money would run out and I’d need to work all the time.

I had learned enough about college to realize the importance of going to a highly rated institution, if possible. I decided to take a last shot at that dream with a round of applications in the fall of 1988. The following March, I got admitted to the University of Virginia and was granted a mix of scholarships and loans. My parents finally got jobs—awful ones, but they got them. I would be able to enroll.

When I was in California, I had been too crippled by my bizarre home life—and my own wrongheaded responses to problems—to take advantage of educational opportunities. Going to Charlottesville on Greyhound, I was determined to make up for that.

Remembering and Learning

George Clausen, Youth Mourning, 1916
George Clausen, Youth Mourning, 1916.

On this Memorial Day, we should remember not only American dead, but foreign victims of unjust wars started by our elite. Most American wars lacked the moral rigor of World War II and the U.S. side of the Civil War. The Iraq War is a recent example of our nation’s penchant for aggression.

That conflict also exposed the rigidities of America’s class system. It’s one of the reasons I have written so much about educational inequality. Years ago, I read several editions of the Youth Attitude Tracking Study, an annual Pentagon report with poll data aimed at figuring out why Americans enlist or don’t enlist in the military. In the reports I read, from the late 1990s, the top reason respondents gave in favor of military enlistment was money for college.

According to a 2014 article titled “Enroll or Enlist” by economist Andrew Barr of the University of Virginia (PDF available here), the motives of those who join the military haven’t changed much. Barr noted that money for college “consistently rank[s] among the top two reasons provided when individuals explain their motivations for joining the military.” (The other reason is job-training.)

He also offers quotes from parents of military personnel.

I’m sorry . . . I can’t afford [college for my children] . . . So I’m going to have at least two children gone to the Army.

 I would have liked [my son] to go straight to college . . . He wants to have some sort of medical career . . . [But] we’re not even a middle-class family . . . Money is an issue . . . the biggest idea of going in the Navy . . . was college money.

The words “gone to the Army” in the former quote say a great deal about Americans’ relationship to their military. These words in the second quote, “not even a middle class family,” say still more.

I have often thought about all those who joined the armed forces to pay for college, particularly in the years immediately before the Second Gulf War, and what happened to them. How many were still on active duty when George W. Bush started his armed corporate takeover of Iraq? How many had left active service and started their long-awaited college careers, only to be called up from the reserves. How many were stop-lossed? How many died? How many of those who survived were wounded or suffered mental illness triggered by their experiences? How many actually managed to obtain the bachelor’s degrees they enlisted to fund?

Many Americans are locked out of college because of astronomically rising costs. This article in US News & World Report shows that college tuition rose 79.5% between 2003 and 2013. That was nearly triple the rate of inflation and nearly double the rise in health-care costs.

Why do colleges raise tuition so sharply? Because they can. Education scholars have shown that tuition increases cannot be explained by rising costs on the goods and services colleges spend money on. That is especially true for spending on faculty, given the enormous number of low-paid adjuncts now on campuses.

And, to return to a theme, the colleges with the most resources—elite private institutions—are by far the least likely to admit students who need money for college. We subsidize that discrimination by granting tax exemptions to those colleges and their donors. The cost is high. In the 2007 book Affirmative Action for the Rich, Peter Sacks wrote that “the government’s revenue loss from the charitable deduction to educational institutions, at $5.9 billion in fiscal [year] 2007, was the single largest ‘tax expenditure’ for education in the federal budget.” That money would pay for a lot of scholarships for students with financial need.

The costs of our socially segregated society are not merely financial. Members of the elite get away with their lust for war because they can fill the ranks of the military without having to draft their own sons and daughters. Low wages and lack of access to health care and, yes, education create a de facto draft of the working class.

I well remember the protests against the Iraq War. (I went to my share.) I also remember the large role played by the faculty and students of leading universities. I wonder if they ever reflected on the role their institutions play in maintaining a reserve army of desperate people who fight the elite’s imperial wars just to get a chance at college.

Class Notes: A Story of Bias in 2003 and Today

I told you I’ve been covering class bias in higher education for a long time. I was going through some old files when I found this unpublished piece on from 2003. I had written the original version in 1999 and kept trying to place it, updating it as new events and research warranted.

I used different elements from this piece in shorter articles for the Progressive Populist in 2004 and Razorcake in 2009. Stylistically, I prefer those later pieces, but the 2003 version includes details I still haven’t seen anywhere else. In this article, I argued that class-based affirmative action should be added to other forms of affirmative action. Everyone else at the time argued that we could either keep race as a criterion or replace it with class. (Gender-based affirmative action typically did not appear in those debates. Most colleges asserted that they did not practice gender preferences at the undergraduate level, which was the main locus of debate on affirmative action.)

Today, most writers on affirmative action still play the class-versus-race card. They also ignore all the evidence showing that college administrators have extreme prejudices against working-class applicants. In this piece, I discussed that problem in the context of social profiling. I believe the article was ahead of its time. It still is, in fact.

Anyway, here it is. Many of the links in the footnotes are out of date, but I left them in order to show the original sources.

Class Notes: Social Status and Affirmative Action (2003 version)

The case for including socioeconomic status within affirmative action criteria has suffered more from its advocates than from its critics. Class-based affirmative action is rarely discussed, except when conservatives offer it as an alternative to race-based affirmative action, as in the Bush administration’s brief in the Michigan Law School case.1 Of course, such maneuvers are purely tactical: conservative interest in the college-admission prospects of working-class and poor applicants never goes beyond the level of gestures made during disputes over race-sensitive admissions.

Despite the neglect of liberals and the shameless ploys of conservatives, we urgently need a remedy for social discrimination. Also, broadening the scope of affirmative action to include class as well as race would shore up support for the policy at a time when it is in serious danger.

The increasing gap between rich and poor in America is nowhere more evident than in the area of college education. A 1998 Presidential Commission on the Cost of Higher Education reported sharply rising costs at undergraduate institutions, especially the private ones that increasingly dominate the US News & World Report rankings and other measures of prestige.2 In 1980, tuition at the average private university was $2,971 higher than tuition at the average public institution. By 1996, that gap had increased to $12,430.

Due to upward redistribution of wealth since 1980, working-class and poor families have borne the brunt of tuition increases at both public and private institutions, while rich families have taken tuition hikes in stride. Between 1980 and 1996, the ratio of average tuition price to household income approximately doubled for the poorest 20% of families, while staying almost exactly the same for the richest 20%.3

Likewise, education scholars Michael McPherson and Morton Shapiro discovered that cuts in the federal Pell Grant program and the failure of university-based scholarships to keep up with tuition have left working-class applicants especially vulnerable to rising tuition costs. Based on enrollment figures from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, they found that upper- and middle-class representation at colleges was unaffected by tuition increases, while percentages of lower-income students (defined as those from households with incomes below $20,000 in 1990 dollars) declined sharply as tuition rose.4

Perhaps the best source of information on the admissions practices and demographics of top universities is The Shape of the River (1998) written by former Princeton President William G. Bowen and former Harvard President Derek Bok, along with four other authors. In the book, the authors effectively countered objections to race-based affirmative action, but an unintended product of their work was to reveal the extent of social elitism at top universities.

Bowen and Bok drew their statistics from the Mellon Foundation’s “College & Beyond” database, a collection of information obtained from admissions statistics and student questionnaires That information came from 28 colleges and universities, heavily weighted toward elite private institutions, in three separate years: 1951, 1976 and 1989. Four Ivy League universities are included in the list, as are Stanford, a number of prestigious liberal arts colleges, and two of the highest rated public universities: Michigan and North Carolina.5 Subsequent discussion pertains to the most recent College & Beyond study (1989), unless otherwise indicated.

One aspect of admissions policy examined by Bowen and Bok was the practice of giving preference to children of alumni or “legacies.” Legacy admissions made the news during the debate over the Michigan affirmative-action case, and administrators at elite universities have been eager to downplay their significance. The Princeton University Admissions Office acknowledges that its committee takes legacy status into consideration, “when such an applicant is in the top part of our applicant group,” but adds that, “no student is admitted simply because he or she is the offspring of a Princeton undergraduate.”6

The Brown University Admissions Office states:

All other things being equal, qualified applicants from families that have a relationship with Brown may be at a slight advantage. Please keep in mind that happenstance of birth alone will not get one admitted to Brown; academic and personal achievement and promise will.7

Using admissions data obtained confidentially from three unspecified private institutions in the College & Beyond database, Bowen and Bok compared 1989 admission rates for African-Americans to those for white legacies and white non-legacies. (The authors did not compare data for African-American legacies and non-legacies, probably because the former category was too small to constitute a significant sample.)

White legacies were admitted at a greater rate than African-American applicants (44% to 39%) and at twice the rate of white, non-legacy applicants (44% to 22%). Among applicants who scored 1300 on the SATs, legacies were two-and-a-half times as likely to be admitted as non-legacies (60% to 24%).8 In fact, non-legacies with SAT scores above 1300 had about the same chance of admission as legacies who only scored in the 1100s (24% versus 22%).9 There is nothing “slight” about the advantages of legacy applicants.

In a counterpoint to their discussion of legacy admissions, the two former university presidents maintained that “the C[ollege] & B[eyond] schools seek to enroll individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds.”10 Likewise, in their friend of the court brief in the Michigan admissions case, lawyers for eight institutions (Brown, Chicago, Dartmouth, Duke, Harvard, Penn, Princeton and Yale) argued that their schools already applied a sort of affirmative action for working-class and poor applicants. “Admissions officials give special attention to, among others, applicants from economically and/or culturally disadvantaged backgrounds.”11

If that is so, Bowen and Bok’s statistics suggest that there is a wide gap between “giving special attention to” economically disadvantaged applicants and actually admitting them. The two authors compared enrollment figures for blacks and whites from different economic backgrounds in the 1989 College & Beyond cohort. They divided students into three economic categories, according to annual household income and whether or not the students’ parents held bachelor’s degrees. The categories were:

  1. High status, consisting of students from households with annual incomes above $70,000 and where at least one parent was a college graduate.
  2. Low status, consisting of those from households with incomes below $22,000 and where neither parent was a college graduate.
  3. Middle status, encompassing all others.12

Using census data, Bowen and Bok found that approximately 9% of Americans fit the high status category, while roughly 64% were middle status, and 28% low status (the figures do not add up to 100% because they are rounded off). At institutions in the Mellon database, the enrollment breakdown was as follows. The percentages for black students appear in the first column, percentages for whites in the second.

High status          15%               44%

Middle status      71%               54%

Low status           14%                  2%13

The authors called the small percentages of low-status students “striking,” and the fact that 50% of all African-Americans fall into the low-status category makes it even more so.14 A chart in the book’s appendices revealed that the percentage of low-status students at the Mellon schools was cut approximately in half between 1976 and 1989. In 1976, 4% of white students at College & Beyond database schools fit the low status category, compared to 2% in 1989. The proportion of black students from low-status backgrounds fell from 26% in 1976 to 14% in 1989. At the same time, the percentage of students from the top social category increased from 40% to 44% among whites, and from 11% to 15% among blacks.15

Turning to the most selective institutions in the database, Bowen and Bok declined to provide percentages for all income groups, but did specify that 12% of blacks at those schools, and only 1% of the whites, came from the low status category.16 It is unclear just how small the latter percentage is, because the authors always rounded off to the nearest whole number, which leaves the possibility that the 1% figure is actually rounded up. For comparison, Andover, President Bush’s prep school, accounted for 1.2% of full-time undergraduates enrolled by Yale between 1998 and 2001, even though Andover’s enrollment is under 1,100.17

Bok and Bowen’s social statistics appear yet more disturbing when we consider that officials at top institutions claim to place a high premium on the educational advantages of diversity. Such advantages are justifiably among the chief reasons cited for maintaining affirmative action. The friend-of-the-court brief submitted by Harvard and seven other institutions states that admissions officers at those schools, “have always sought to enroll a broad cross-section of students who can bring a critical mix of experiences and perspectives into the university community.” The lawyers also added this statement: “Diversity helps students confront perspectives other than their own and thus to think more rigorously and imaginatively; it helps students learn to relate better to people from different backgrounds.”18

That is true with regard to race, and equally true with regard to class. How are classroom discussions of poverty or economic policy at the most selective institutions influenced by the fact that 99% of white students and 88% of black students are upper- or middle-status, as defined by Bowen and Bok? Does the near total absence of low-status students at the most prestigious colleges encourage undergraduates at those schools to accept or reject the stereotype that poor people are lazy? Would not the addition of an economic category of affirmative action improve social diversity among black and Hispanic students at top colleges, and also concentrate the benefits of the policy more directly on the minority applicants who have suffered the worst discrimination?

Despite the grim evidence of social exclusion they uncovered, and its negative implications for universities’ quest for diversity, Bowen and Bok came out against class-based affirmative admission. They offered statistics that proved that minority enrollments would fall if class-based affirmative action replaced affirmative action by race, but they never considered the possibility that the two types of affirmative action could operate in conjunction.

Likewise, once the subject shifted from race to class, the two authors stopped basing their judgments on hard data and rigorous analysis. At one point they wrote: “Although some critics may believe that universities do not try hard enough to find qualified low-income applicants, this charge is probably unjustified.”19 Probably?

Nowhere in the main body of the book, nor in the 150+ pages of statistical appendices, did the authors test that claim, but evidence against it can be found in a source they cite extensively: an article by economist Thomas Kane, studying the results of achievement tests taken by graduating high school seniors in 1992. Kane analyzed the backgrounds of students who scored in the top 10% of all test-takers in both math and reading, separating the students by race (blacks and Hispanics in one group, whites in the other) and by two broad income categories (those from households with annual incomes above $20,000 and those with incomes below that figure).20

One finding of the study was that among whites who took the test, 6.1% of the top-scorers came from households in the below-$20,000 category.21 Those students overcame a great deal to outperform many test-takers from more privileged backgrounds, and that is precisely the sort of achievement admissions officers claim to be looking for in their applicants.

Recall, however, that only 1% of white students at the most selective College & Beyond institutions came from Bowen and Bok’s low-status category ($22,000 income and neither parent with a BA–comparable to the bottom social category as defined by Kane). That disparity alone indicates that there are many more highly qualified, low-income candidates for admission than top universities are currently enrolling. Another of Bowen and Bok’s objections to class-based affirmative action was that the policy was “probably prohibitively expensive.”22

That plea of poverty is especially odd, considering the enormous growth in top universities’ endowments during the 1990s. A 1997 list of university endowments showed that every Ivy League institution except Brown possessed an endowment of over $1 billion (Brown’s endowment measured $949 million). Harvard was first in the nation at just under $11 billion, and a year later that figure had risen to $13 billion. A study of endowments at all American universities in 1995-96 showed an average annual growth rate of over 17%.23

When building their endowments, colleges and universities benefit immensely from the tax exemptions that come with their non-profit status. In fact, the legal requirements for receiving a tax exemption are more lax for institutions of higher learning than for registered charities and other private, non-profit institutions. Unlike other non-profits, colleges and universities are not required to spend 5% of their endowments annually in order to maintain their tax-exempt status, and many colleges do not spend that amount.24

Private universities got a scare in 1995, when a Pennsylvania court revoked the state tax exemption for Washington and Jefferson College, an expensive private institution. The court found that the college failed to meet a number of criteria normally required of non-profit organizations. Particularly, it did not offer enough of its services free of charge nor did it benefit enough persons who were worthy of charity.25 An appeals court overturned the ruling on a 4-3 vote, but the question posed by the lower court is apposite: why should taxpayers face higher taxes in order to provide exemptions for institutions that are not only quite wealthy, but are truly open only to well-to-do applicants?

In a final attack on the idea of class-based affirmative action, Bowen and Bok offered this warning to admissions officers: “students with low socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely than students of equivalent ability from high socioeconomic backgrounds to complete their studies, attain professional or doctoral degrees, and earn high incomes.”26

Of course, that piece of social profiling ignores many basic social factors that affect graduation rates and lifetime income. Most obviously, students from low-income backgrounds are more likely to have to drop out of school and find jobs in order to help support their families. Wealthy students with strong family connections in business or the professions hold obvious advantages over those without them, and elite fraternities, sororities and clubs allow rich students to make valuable contacts that improve career prospects and increase earning power. A particularly egregious case of the second phenomenon is Bowen’s own Princeton University, with its long tradition of socially exclusive dining clubs.

Bowen and Bok would not treat the obstacles faced by many African-American students as a reason not to admit them in the first place. However, they did just that in the case of low-income applicants from all racial backgrounds. Given their standing, they must have known that their book was going to be essential reading in college admission offices, and it was utterly irresponsible for them to sanction prejudices against economically disadvantaged applicants. Despite its effective defense of race-based affirmative action, The Shape of the River reveals the problems that stem from leaving affirmative action policy, and the defense of it, to university administrators.

It is time for progressives in the union movement, the civil rights movement and the press to take up the matter. The tools for implementing class-based affirmative action are already in place on American campuses. Colleges already collect financial information from applicants, and Bowen and Bok’s criteria of parental income and degree status make a good starting point for identifying economically disadvantaged candidates, though it would also be useful to distinguish between parents who are manual laborers and those whose occupations are non-manual. Of course, the new policy would spell the end of “need blind” admissions at the institutions where that practice exists. However, given the many indicators of class contained in the information available to admissions offices (home town, high school, legacy status), the idea of need blind admissions is chimerical anyway. And attempts to follow that policy have failed to make colleges more socially inclusive.

The best long-term solution would be to add socioeconomic status to the categories of discrimination prohibited by civil rights laws. Under the 1987 Civil Rights Restoration Act, institutions that receive federal funds, including those that participate in guaranteed student loan programs, are subject to US civil rights legislation. The federal government could therefore ban legacies and set goals and timetables for increased enrollment of economically disadvantaged students any time the country has a president and Congress willing to start treating socially exclusive practices at universities as a form of invidious discrimination. So far, politicians have shown little interest, though Senator John Edwards’s proposal to end legacy preferences is a welcome start. Another means of promoting national discussion on the topic would be to focus attention on the tax exemptions granted to rich colleges and universities, and on the small percentage of well-to-do taxpayers whose children get to attend those institutions.

All signs indicate that the Republicans intend to use affirmative action as a major issue in the 2004 campaign. If supporters of affirmative action do not find a way to counter the administration’s playing of the race card, they can look forward to increasingly effective employment of such tactics by conservatives in years to come. Campaigning for the expansion of affirmative action would allow progressives to blunt the edge of Republican racial politics, and also highlight the GOP’s love of social privilege. More fundamentally, such a plan would make a start on the first order of business for progressive politics today: finding ways to unite working-class people currently divided along racial, urban-rural or other lines.

  1. No. 02-516 In the Supreme Court of the United States. Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hammacher, Petitioners v. Lee Bollinger et al. Brief for the United States as Amicus Curiae supporting petitioners (On-line press release of the Office of the Solicitor General:, 7.
  2. In US News & World Report “America’s Best Colleges” (2004), the top 20 universities are all private.
  3. Straight talk about college costs and prices: Report of the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education (Phoenix, AZ: National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education and Oryx Press, 1998), 160.
  4. Michael S. McPherson and Morton Owen Shapiro, The Student Aid Game: Meeting Need and Rewarding Talent in American Higher Education (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 38-49, 136-144; Michael S. McPherson and Morton Owen Shapiro, “Does Student Aid Affect College Enrollment? New Evidence on a Persistent Controversy,” American Economic Review, Volume 81, No. 1 (March, 1991), 309-317.
  5. William G. Bowen and Derek Bok, in collaboration with James L. Shulman, Thomas L. Nygren, Stacy Berg Dale, and Lauren A. Meserve, The Shape of the River: Long-term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), xxviii-xxix The twenty-eight institutions in the database are seventeen research universities (Columbia, Duke, Emory, Miami (Ohio), Michigan, North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Northwestern, Pennsylvania, Penn State, Princeton, Rice, Stanford, Tufts, Tulane, Vanderbilt, Washington University in St. Louis and Yale) and eleven liberal arts colleges (Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Denison, Hamilton, Kenyon, Oberlin, Smith, Swarthmore, Wellesley, Wesleyan, Williams). All the institutions are private except the following four: Miami, Michigan, North Carolina and Penn State.
  8. Bowen and Bok, 28, 28n.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid., 48.
  11. Nos. 02-241 and 02-516 In the Supreme Court of the United States. Barbara Grutter, Petitioner  v. Lee Bollinger, et al; Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacher, Petitioners v. Lee Bollinger, et al. Brief of Harvard University, Brown University, the University of Chicago, Dartmouth College, Duke University, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and Yale University as Amici Curiae supporting respondents (On-line press release of Harvard University:, 20.
  12. Bowen and Bok, 48n.
  13. Ibid., 48-49.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid., 341.
  16. Bowen and Bok, 40, 49-50. The selectivity rating was based on the average SAT scores of enrollees. The colleges and universities in the “most selective” category were Bryn Mawr, Duke, Princeton, Rice, Stanford, Swarthmore, Williams and Yale.
  17. That percentage is based on college placement figures made public by the Andover College Counseling Office ( and on Yale’s enrollment in 2001 as recorded in US News & World Report’s America’s Best Colleges (2001).
  18. Brief of Harvard University, etc., 19, 8.
  19. Bowen and Bok, 50.
  20. Thomas J. Kane, “Racial and Ethnic Preferences in College Admissions,” in Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips (eds.), The Black-White Test Score Gap (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1998), 449-451.
  21. Kane, 449.
  22. Bowen and Bok, 50.
  23. Ronald G. Ehrenberg, Tuition Rising: Why College Costs So Much (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000), 36-38.
  24. Ibid., 269.
  25. Ibid., 268-69.
  26. Bowen and Bok, 271.

End Discrimination Against Working-Class Students at American Colleges

Dartmouth College, circa 1834
Dartmouth College, circa 1834

After decades of ignoring under-representation of working-class students at elite colleges, some politicians and media-makers have finally taken notice. But discussion has been vague and action has been lacking. We won’t bring about true social diversity at top colleges until we address the problem of discrimination.

In January 2014, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama launched a new initiative to increase college access for low-income students. The president said that the initiative had the backing of “college presidents—from state universities and historically black colleges to Ivy League universities and community colleges.” He noted that “more than 100 colleges and 40 organizations are announcing new commitments to help more young people not only go to, but graduate from college.” To document these new efforts, the White House released Commitments to Action, with pledges from individual institutions. (See that and more on the initiative here.)

Unfortunately, the promises offered by top private colleges were either vague, paltry, or both. The only Ivy League college that made a specific, numerical commitment to increase low-income enrollment was Yale. That university’s officials promised to intensify their work with QuestBridge, a national, non-profit organization that seeks to match talented low-income students with leading colleges. According to Commitments to Action, Yale pledged to increase “the number of QuestBridge Finalists it enrolls in its freshman class by 50 percent. Yale has traditionally enrolled 50-60 [QuestBridge] students per year, and is now committing to enrolling 75-80 students who apply through this program for entry in fall 2014 and fall 2015.”

But if the “traditional” baseline for measuring the increase is set at the upper level of 60 QuestBridge students per year, then enrolling 75 such students would constitute only a 25% increase. Enrolling 80 would only amount to a 33% increase.

Yale’s commitment to a 50% increase did not survive the next sentence of the report. At most, Yale is promising to admit 30 more QuestBridge students per year than before. According to the latest federal statistics, 30 students equals 0.5% of Yale’s undergraduate enrollment. When it comes to elite, private colleges, President Obama’s initiative is little more than a public-relations effort.

What would a real campaign for social diversity look like? It would define the problem, demand substantial, measurable improvements, and provide credible sanctions for institutions that fail to comply.

The problem is discrimination.

Politicians, journalists, and “experts” are remarkably consistent in attributing low enrollment of economically disadvantaged students to those students’ own failures or, at worst, innocent oversights by college administrators. But working-class students are so severely under-represented at elite colleges, particularly the most prestigious private ones, that such excuses are insulting.

Private colleges are not required to provide data on social diversity. So our best measurement is the percentage of a college’s undergraduates who receive Pell Grants, a federal scholarship for low- and middle-income students.

As shown by U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of economic diversity at top national universities, only a few elite institutions have percentages of Pell Grant recipients higher than the ’teens. There is an enormous gap between the two leading University of California institutions and all the others on the list. (Columbia University is somewhat more diverse than the other Ivies, but I discovered that its percentage of Pell students is greatly exaggerated, due to an error regarding that institution’s enrollment. The figure should be 23%, not 30%.) UCB and UCLA have achieved Pell percentages in the upper-30s without compromising academic excellence. What excuse do the other 23 colleges have?

The Southern Education Foundation recently reported that the majority of U.S. public-school students are low income, as defined by participation in free- and reduced-rate school-lunch programs. The majority, and most likely a large majority, of public-school students would qualify for Pell Grants, if they went to college. Yet only a small fraction of students at most elite private colleges receive Pell Grants.

Likewise, education scholar John Jerrim has concluded that low-social-status students are under-represented at U.S. colleges, and that the “access gap” between them and high-status students cannot be explained by academic achievement. The disparity is worst at top private institutions. Differences in academic performance account for 60% of the access gap at “elite public sector colleges,” but only 48% of the gap at “elite private sector colleges.” (That study, “Family background and access to ‘high status’ universities,” is available here.)

That is to say, merit, as defined by grades and test scores, cannot explain even half of the social-class gap at top private colleges in the U.S. The barriers facing low-status university applicants are actually lower in England, where academic performance explains 73% of the access gap. I thought England was the country with a class system, not America.

It is absurd to suggest that the staggering social divide in U.S. higher education is caused entirely by working-class students performing poorly or refusing to apply to colleges that would happily admit them. In fact, class bigotry is deeply ingrained in the practices of elite institutions.

Nearly all of America’s top private colleges, and many of the top public ones, grant large admissions preferences to “legacies,” children of graduates. Or, to be more precise, children of rich graduates. In his 1991 study of applicants to Harvard, education scholar David Karen found that legacies who request financial aid when applying lose most of the legacy advantage. (You can read more about that and legacy preferences in general in Daniel Golden’s book, The Price of Admission.)

more about that and legacy preferences in general in Daniel Golden’s book, The Price of Admission.)

Let’s look at a hypothetical case involving two white, male applicants to an Ivy League university. Applicant A is the first in his family to apply to college. His parents are manual laborers and his family’s income is under $30,000 a year. He hopes that a degree from a prestigious college will afford him a better career than either of his parents have. He also hopes to benefit from Ivy League universities’ “no loan” financial-aid policy for low-income students. All the public institutions to which he is applying would require him to take out student loans. He attended an under-funded public high school and worked part-time jobs to help his family pay the bills. Even so, he scored a 2100 on the SAT and achieved a grade-point average of 3.7.

Applicant B is a fifth-generation legacy. His parents do not work, due to their investment income, which is valued at over $10,000,000 annually. Applicant B does not need a career and he will be better off financially than his parents as long as his family’s investments continue to rise in value. Applicant B attended a top private high school, scored 1700 on the SAT, and achieved a grade-point average of 3.5. He did not have a job during high school. The admissions office rejects applicant A and admits applicant B.

Do something like that once and you are a bigot. Make a policy of doing that and you are an especially low order of bigot. That hypothetical is hardly an exaggeration. In their 1998 book, The Shape of the River, former Princeton President William G. Bowen, former Harvard President Derek Bok, and four other authors wrote about legacy preferences in admissions at elite private colleges. They reported that white legacies who scored in the 1100 range on the SAT (using the old 1600-point scale) were nearly as likely to be admitted as white non-legacies who scored 1300-1600. The former had a 22% chance of admission, while the latter had a 24% chance. (Don’t get the idea that such inequities caused the authors to oppose legacy preferences, however.)

The feudal absurdity of legacy bias is not an isolated issue. Like other destructive behaviors, discrimination gets easier with repetition. Legacy advantages are proof of a system of thought that treats the rich and well-connected as more deserving than others. That bias inevitably affects all admissions decisions. No government policy has confronted it directly, though all elite private colleges are tax-exempt.

Discrimination against working-class whites is also discrimination.

In their 2009 book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal, education scholars Thomas J. Espenshade and Alexandria W. Radford analyzed the impact of class and race on admissions at selective colleges. Looking at applicants with the same academic qualifications, the authors found that “for white applicants to private institutions, there is a low SES [socio-economic status] admissions disadvantage.” Whites who described themselves as “lower class” were about one-third as likely to be admitted as equally qualified whites who described themselves as “upper class.” They were also much less likely to be admitted than equally qualified African Americans and Hispanics from their own social class. (There is more detail on Espenshade and Radford’s findings here.)

Invidious discrimination in favor of rich whites and against working-class whites is worse than Espenshade and Radford’s statistics suggest. They compared applicants with the same academic scores. But that ignores the pronounced advantages of wealthy students, which include attending the best schools, being able to obtain private tutoring and test coaching, and having parents who are likely to be familiar with the admissions criteria of elite institutions. If you come from a working-class or low-income household, and you achieve scores that match those of wealthy applicants, you are actually more qualified than they are.

Though few in the media have noticed, discrimination against working-class white applicants reveals that elite college administrators have a warped definition of diversity. Let’s create a better definition.

To end discrimination, abolish preferences for legacies and donors’ children. At the same time, expand affirmative-action programs to include social class.

There is no excuse for hereditary privileges such as those offered to children of wealthy alumni and donors. Likewise, in The Chosen, a study of the history of admissions practices at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, Jerome Karabel showed the value of affirmative-action programs. Those three universities’ percentages of black students did not increase substantially until the late 1960s and early 1970s. Why then? Because that was when all three institutions implemented aggressive programs of race-based affirmative action. Likewise, gender-based affirmative action proved essential for increasing gender diversity at American colleges. To solve the problem of social exclusion, it is vital that we add social class to existing affirmative-action criteria.

The government must require that institutions provide detailed statistics on social diversity, among graduate and professional students as well as undergraduates. Pell Grants are an inadequate measure of the percentage of working-class students on campus.

To make affirmative action work, the government needs to obtain reliable statistics from colleges on the social backgrounds of students. Private institutions are not required to supply such information. Consequently, the only verifiable measure of low-income students at any private college is its number of Pell Grant recipients. But Pell Grants are normally only given to undergraduates, and eligibility for that program is no longer a reliable indicator of low income.

Writers on education policy have long followed the rule of thumb that being eligible for a Pell Grant places a student in roughly the bottom half of the U.S. income scale. In most cases, that would be an accurate assumption.

However, the Pell program has expanded dramatically since 2007. During that time, the number of Pell recipients has risen by 73%, and the number of recipients with family incomes above $60,000 per year has risen by nearly 900%. In fact, the most recent government statistics show that more than 2,000 students from households with incomes over $100,000 per year obtained Pell Grants. If admissions officers worked the numbers right, the eight Ivy League colleges could easily quintuple their number of Pell recipients without admitting a single applicant with a family income below $70,000 per year. That would still leave tens of thousands of Pell students in the over-70,000 income category, allowing other elite colleges to do the same.

The Crash of 2008 and the Great Recession muddied the issue further. Many investors and professional/managerial staff lost wealth or even jobs as a result of the crisis. Some of them are now working lower-paying jobs or relying on savings, factors that could make their children newly eligible for Pell Grants. Students from such families may not be as well-to-do as they were previously, but it is misleading to place them in the same category as first-generation collegians whose parents are low-paid, manual laborers. If a college’s increase in Pell recipients is slanted toward students in the former category, exclusion of working-class and genuinely low-income students may be as bad as ever. We need to know if that is the case.

There is a similar problem with regard to recruited athletes. If even a few Pell recipients at a particular college were recruited by the athletic department, that school’s Pell statistics will exaggerate social diversity among students who are not sports stars. But there is now no independent means of determining how many Pell students are recruited athletes.

Nor is income the only indicator of economic disadvantage. There is evidence that having parents who did not attend college is a larger obstacle to college admission than low income. In a study of admissions at 19 selective colleges published in 2005, former Princeton president William G. Bowen and two other education scholars found that those institutions were less likely to enroll first-generation college students than students from the bottom income quartile. They reported that 6.2% of students were in the former category, 10.8% in the latter, and only 3.1% in both. We require data that pertains to all categories of class disadvantage—low income, first-generation college student, child of manual laborers—in order to end admissions discrimination based on class.

Likewise, social diversity is essential in graduate and professional schools, as well as undergraduate studies. Recent discussions of that issue have largely ignored students at the post-bachelor’s degree level. That omission is unacceptable.

For colleges that fail to achieve social diversity, penalties must include a loss of tax exemptions, rather than Pell Grant cuts. We must also amend laws against educational discrimination to take account of social class.

The Obama administration has called for federal funds to be “steered toward high-performing colleges that provide the best value.” The president wants to create a federal ranking system for colleges. Criteria for the rankings would include affordability and access, with the latter measured by “the percentage of students receiving Pell grants.” Obama has promised to propose legislation that ties federal funding to the rankings, but has not yet released a detailed plan for ranking colleges. According to a White House press release from October 2013:

The Administration will seek legislation using this new rating system to transform the way federal aid is awarded to colleges once the ratings are well developed. Students attending high-performing colleges could receive larger Pell Grants and more affordable student loans. 

The language (“could receive”) is tepid. But the president’s proposal holds out the possibility of funding cuts, or at least smaller funding increases, for colleges that rate low on access and affordability.

Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to expect that implicit threat to have any impact on admissions at the most socially exclusive colleges. Given that the president was impressed by the vague and small-scale promises offered by elite colleges in Commitments to Action, there seems to be little danger of institutions getting into trouble with this White House over lack of access for low-income students. But even if the president and Congress started cutting Pell funds to colleges that fail to improve social diversity, that action would achieve nothing.

At last federal count, Harvard’s endowment exceeded $30 billion, while Yale’s was over $19 billion. It is ridiculous to expect administrators at such institutions to be frightened by the threat that some of their students might lose federal grant funds, especially since that occurrence would furnish an excuse for admitting fewer low-income students. The loss of tax exemptions is a far more effective sanction, and effective sanctions are long overdue. It would be doubly useful if the proceeds from taxes on elite (and elitist) institutions were channeled into need-based scholarships and funding for public education in general.

Our ultimate goal must be to end class-based educational bias by making it illegal. There are areas of the economy (home-buying, for instance) in which it would be impossible to ban discrimination based on social class. Education is not one of those areas. (For more on that issue, see this article.)

It is up to the people to fix America’s socially segregated system of higher education. That task cannot be left to college administrators.

Officials at top colleges have repeatedly declared mission accomplished on social diversity, and they have not been swayed by evidence to the contrary. In 2011, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a list of the percentage of Pell Grant recipients at the 50 richest colleges in the U.S. The three most eminent Ivy League universities, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, each ranked in the bottom ten, with percentages in the single digits. Harvard ranked the lowest of the three, 49th, with only 6.5% of its students receiving Pell Grants.

William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard, and Sarah C. Donahue, Harvard’s director of financial aid, wrote a letter to the editor stating that their institution “has played a leadership role among colleges and universities to attract a diverse array of students, including those eligible for Pell Grants.” Consequently, Fitzsimmons and Donahue were “disappointed” by the “misleading” 6.5% figure. That percentage is only accurate, they wrote:

if you count both students attending Harvard College, the institution that comes to mind when most people think of undergraduates attending Harvard, and also the thousands of nontraditional students who took even one undergraduate class at the Harvard Extension School that year.

The two administrators explained that the majority of extension-school students were not eligible for Pell Grants because they were not enrolled in degree programs. If all extension-school students were excluded from the sample, Fitzsimmons and Donahue argued, Harvard’s percentage of Pell Grant recipients in 2008-09 would rise to 12.8%.

The Chronicle responded that it was not feasible to exclude Harvard’s extension school because “to do so would have compromised the analysis by basing it on data that institutions had submitted individually, excluding some students, rather than on national baseline data collected and policed by the U.S. Education Department.” The editors added that “the article noted that the enrollment figure for Harvard included its extension school.”

The Chronicle was on firm ground, but the main point is that the difference between the two percentages—6.5 and 12.8—is less significant than Harvard officials pretend. Under either measure, Harvard’s percentage of Pell Grant recipients was lower than its percentage of students who were legacies, as reported by Daniel Golden of the Wall Street Journal in 2006: 13%.

Harvard’s dispute with The Chronicle of Higher Education continued in 2013, when that journal published another article listing percentages of Pell Grant recipients at top colleges. The Chronicle placed Harvard’s figure at 11%. William Fitzsimmons wrote another letter to The Chronicle’s editor stating that, if Harvard’s extension school were excluded from the statistics, Harvard’s percentage of Pell Grant recipients would be 16.9% in the year used for The Chronicle’s study (2011) and 17.2% the following year. Fitzsimmons wrote: “This represents an 81-percent increase in the number of Pell Grant recipients since 2004, when we launched a targeted initiative to encourage talented low-income students to apply to, and attend, Harvard College.”

However, Fitzsimmons neglected to note that the latest federal data then available showed an 80% increase in Pell Grant eligibility nationwide since 2007. He also failed to note the nearly-900% increase in Pell Grants to students with annual family incomes over $60,000 during the same time frame. How much credit should Harvard receive for increasing its percentage of Pell students by a rate that almost exactly matches the overall national increase in eligibility for that program? Like Fitzsimmons, other administrators at elite colleges have boasted of recent, dramatic increases in enrolling Pell Grant recipients. Those assertions must also be weighed against the expansion of the Pell program nationwide.

Back in 2004, William G. Bowen corresponded with Fitzsimmons about social diversity at Harvard. The dean informed Bowen that Harvard was in the midst of a campaign to recruit low-income applicants. Summarizing Fitzsimmons’s letter to him, Bowen wrote: “A large part of this outreach effort is directed toward what Fitzsimmons calls ‘non-traditional’ families. Major efforts are made to demystify the application process and to emphasize the much greater availability of financial aid today.”

Those must have been some efforts. Harvard earned The Chronicle’s ranking of 49th most socially diverse college among the 50 richest four and a half years after Fitzsimmons’s reassuring missive to Bowen. A constant feature of debates about higher education is Harvard officials’ unshakeable conviction that they are doing a great job of increasing social diversity.

Harvard is by no means alone on that score. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court heard legal arguments in Grutter v. Bollinger, in which the plaintiff sought to end race-based affirmative action. Eight top colleges—Brown, Chicago, Dartmouth, Duke, (yes) Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale—joined to present a friend-of-the-court brief in defense of the policy. The authors of the brief depicted preferences based on race as just one of many categories of admissions advantages granted by college administrators. Responding to a suggestion from the plaintiff’s lawyers that social background should replace race as a category of affirmative action, the lawyers for the eight colleges wrote:

Although petitioners suggest that universities should consider factors like economic circumstances and personal hardships, the truth is that those factors are already taken into account in the typical selective admissions process.

That is a remarkable assertion. Lawyers for the eight colleges replied to a suggestion that they apply class-based affirmative action by stating that institutions already practiced some form of that policy. Specifically, they implied that their institutions practiced class-based affirmative action. Then there is this passage, in which class-based affirmative action is given equal standing alongside preferences for legacies and recruited athletes.

Admissions officials give special attention to, among others, applicants from economically and/or culturally disadvantaged backgrounds, those with unusual athletic ability, those with special artistic talents, those who would be the first in their families to attend any college, those whose parents are alumni or alumnae, and those who have overcome various identifiable hardships.

It is beyond doubt that recruited athletes and legacies received—and still receive—preferences. In 2005, William G. Bowen published a study of admissions data (from 1995) at 19 selective colleges, including the eight that submitted the Grutter friend-of-the-court brief. He reported that being a recruited athlete improved an applicant’s admissions chances by 30 percentage points. For legacies, the advantage was 20 points.

For low-income applicants, however, Bowen found “no perceptible difference in the chance of being admitted.” Other evidence tells the same story. In 2004, the Century Foundation published a listing of the percentage of Pell Grant recipients at leading colleges, based on data from the 1999-2000 academic year. At the University of California at Berkeley, a leading institution that practices a form of class-based affirmative action, 32.4% of undergraduates received Pell Grants. At the eight colleges that filed the Grutter brief, the percentages of Pell recipients ranged from 6.8% to 12.4%, and five of the eight institutions were in single digits. If those latter colleges “gave special attention to” economically disadvantaged applicants, there was no evidence of that in their enrollment statistics.

An extremely charitable interpretation of the eight colleges’ Supreme Court brief would be that officials at those schools simply forgot that, while they granted preferences to legacies, recruited athletes, and under-represented racial minorities, preferences for “economically disadvantaged applicants” remained a theoretical concept on their campuses. A less charitable interpretation would be that those officials misled the Supreme Court of the United States.

Despite the secrecy that shrouds admissions practices at top private colleges, it is easy to discern a pattern of deceit. Administrators at those schools are quick to proclaim commitments to social diversity and just as quick to support those claims with false assurances and misleading statistics. They have every motive to distort the reality of their institutions’ practices, and—so far—no reason to fear consequences if they do.

Most of America’s elite colleges have long histories of class discrimination and equally long histories of covering it up. Genuine reform will begin only after we acknowledge, and take action against, discrimination. Action starts with the end of tax exemptions for wealthy, socially exclusive colleges, those that fail to meet UC Berkeley’s standard for enrolling Pell students (36% of undergraduate enrollment).

Then we must demand detailed information on social diversity from colleges, and craft new laws to address discrimination revealed by such data. However appealing their rhetoric of inclusion, politicians, journalists, and other authorities who reject those measures are opponents of social justice in American education.