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 I was going through some old files when I found this unpublished piece on from 2003.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 Many of the links in the footnotes are out of date, but I left them in order to show the original sources.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.

Elitist Shills for the War Machine: Judith Miller and Fareed Zakaria

You may have seen Jon Stewart questioning Judith Miller on The Daily Show. I’m glad that her attempts to claim to be a journalist are receiving criticism, if not quite enough.

A couple years ago, I wrote a piece titled “War and the American Elite,” in which I discussed war-promoters like Miller. I focused on the close class alliances between elite politicians and elite media-makers.

Here is what I wrote about Miller.

Liberal writers and media outlets also played an enormous role in building the fraudulent case for war. In fact, Bush & Co.’s preferred means of planting false information in the public mind was The New York Times—and, specifically, reporter Judith Miller. Here is a short list of bogus claims presented as true in Times articles either written or co-written by Miller.

1. Saddam Hussein was seeking components for nuclear weapons.

2. Saddam already had an array of chemical weapons, including anthrax.

3. The Iraqi military was attempting to make a biological weapon, using smallpox.

The Bush gang’s puppeteering of Miller was so tightly controlled that on September 8, 2002, when another set of their planted lies appeared in the Times under Miller’s name, Dick Cheney went on Meet the Press to tout the article. “There’s a story in The New York Times this morning,” Cheney said, wearing his somber face. “And I want to attribute the Times.” Say “Times” again, Dick.

For her part, Miller later looked back on her false reports and said this: “If your sources are wrong, you’re going to be wrong.” Actually, the last time I checked, journalists were supposed to assess the credibility of their sources.

Why did Miller align herself so closely with the administration? Also, how did someone with so little understanding of how journalism works rise to a top position at The New York Times? While you’re pondering those questions, allow me to mention that Miller is a graduate of Barnard College, an expensive, private women’s institution in Manhattan, affiliated with Columbia University. She also obtained a master’s degree from Princeton.

After Miller’s reporting was exposed as a sick joke, NYT management initially defended her. But criticism of Miller grew so widespread that she ultimately resigned and took a job on Fox News Channel. Sources at the Times stated that Miller had been specially protected by the newspaper’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who inherited that post from his father. Doug McGill, a former reporter at the Times, said in 2005, “Arthur’s social closeness to Judy is making it hard for him to see things clearly.” I like that word choice. “Social closeness” sums up not only the politics of the NYT but the larger problem of corporate media’s cozy relationship with the Bushites.

Another shill for the Iraq War, Fareed Zakaria, recently appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher to lecture the host about Muslims. Zakaria is not so much an expert on Muslims as he is an expert on getting Muslims killed by the hundreds of thousands in imperial wars. Why is this guy still considered any kind of expert? If you understood Foreign Policy 101, you knew better than to invade a deeply divided Muslim country such as Iraq. If you had paid attention to the careers of the gang around George W. Bush, you knew better than to believe the WMD stories they were peddling. Zakaria didn’t know better, in either case. Why does anyone now care what he says?

Because he’s a member of the club. Here is what I wrote about Zakaria in “War and the American Elite.”

When Fareed Zakaria endorsed Bush’s invasion plan, he lent credibility to the argument for war. Zakaria was less stridently conservative than the usual parade of right-wingers on Fox News Channel. He also possessed greater cosmopolitan credentials than many other war-backers. An immigrant from India, Zakaria had edited the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs and met numerous world leaders.

In an interview with New York magazine shortly before the start of the war, Zakaria explained why he agreed with Bush. “[Iraq] is so dysfunctional, any stirring of the pot is good. America’s involvement in the region is for the good.” In other words: Oh, what the hell? Why not? Just stir the pot and see what happens. Zakaria’s words do not spring from a careful weighing of the consequences of war—for the soldiers who fight it or the civilians who become “collateral damage.” They are the words of a rich kid haphazardly deciding to place a bet at the roulette wheel. To Zakaria, Iraq was just a game, a puzzle of dysfunction that the U.S. elite might be able to solve by tossing other people’s lives and money into it.

Like George W. Bush, Fareed Zakaria inherited his place in the game. His father was a high-ranking politician and his mother was a newspaper editor. After graduating from prep school, Zakaria received degrees from Yale and Harvard. Referring to his privileged upbringing, he told New York “I grew up in this world where everything seemed possible.” “We saw the best architects, government officials, and poets all the time,” he added. “Nothing seemed out of your reach.” That was the problem. Coverage of the war debate would have been better if the media’s anointed “experts” had come from a world of limited possibilities or had experience dealing with the consequences of destructive policies.

You can read the full article here.

I keep hearing that things happen in threes. If so, we are due for another spate of breathtakingly stupid comments from Bill Keller. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Context on First-Generation College Students

I have written several recent posts on first-generation college students, but I want to point out a useful piece of context on that subject.

Some top colleges have been touting self-reported statistics showing that their incoming classes have percentages of first-generation students in the ’teens. In an article in last week’s New York Times, which has been the subject of a few posts and some enjoyable correspondence, we read that 17 percent of students in Brown’s current freshman class are first generation. (The source isn’t given—Brown administrators probably.)

According to the article, Brown defines “first-generation” students as those who come from families in which neither parent had a bachelor degree. How many of the families of today’s college students fit that description? It’s impossible to determine, but data on educational attainment provided by the U.S. Census Bureau can give us a very general idea.

Using the first sub-category in Table 1 (“All Races”), we can get data on the age group most likely to be parents of today’s college freshmen. I define that group as persons aged 40-59.

Of the 84.433 million people in that age group, 27.376 million, or 32%, have at least a bachelor’s degree. So 68% of the parents of today’s college freshman do not. While there are undoubtedly households in which one parent has a degree and one doesn’t, that 68% figure indicates that Brown University officials have little room to boast if 17% of their freshman class are “first gen.”

The other colleges mentioned in the same sentence of that Times article had lower reported percentages of first-gen freshmen than Brown: Dartmouth – 11, Princeton – 12, Yale – 14, Amherst – 15, Cornell – 16. So, again, the degree of social diversity at top private colleges is less than you would expect, based on all the self-congratulation in those quarters.

NYT Editor Jane Karr’s Contempt for Working-Class People

Last time, I was discussing The New York Times  and my efforts to persuade the paper’s Education Life Editor, Jane Karr, to fix obvious errors in an article from Wednesday. Specifically, I noted the penultimate message that Editor Karr sent me, which ended with these lines.

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.

Though the Times made the corrections after I received that message, I felt I should reply to Ms. Karr and particularly to those last two sentences. Here is my latest e-mail to her.

Ms. Karr:

I am glad to see the revised text. I believe that our correspondence proved valuable. Your newspaper got to correct some inaccuracies. I got to know that I was helpful in some small way to The New York Times. And you got to taunt me about the fact that I may suffer financial ruin for confronting Wash. U. officials about their admissions policies. Everybody won.

However, I want to make clear that I did not quit my job over a statistic. I resigned my job at Washington University to protest systemic class bias. Looking at enrollment data at Wash. U. and other top private colleges, you may only see statistics.

But, behind the statistics, I see many talented, hard-working people from my background who are consigned to dead-end jobs because many top colleges discriminate in favor of the rich and well-connected. I also see those same working-class people paying their taxes, like good Americans, and thereby paying for the tax exemptions of the colleges that discriminate against them. Legacy preferences and other forms of invidious class bias are tolerated by most journalists who cover education, but they should not be tolerated.

I was heartened to read the stories of first-generation college students in Laura Pappano’s article. I wish we had a campus organization for “first-gens” when I was an undergraduate.

But just as the uncorrected text on Wash. U. exaggerated the degree and rate of change at that university, the article in general exaggerated improvements in social diversity at many of the colleges discussed. For instance, Ms. Pappano wrote:

Data compiled for the 1vyG conference by Dr. [Thomas G.] Mortenson shows that from 2000 to 2013, Amherst, Harvard, Brown and Princeton doubled or almost doubled Pell recipients. Yale’s growth was modest, while Cornell numbers declined slightly.

The increases in Pell enrollments at Amherst, Harvard, Brown, Princeton, and Yale would have looked smaller had you noted that the number of Pell recipients nationwide increased 73% between the 2006-07 academic year and the 2012-13 year.

Likewise, in this passage, it may not have been a bad idea to mention that, based on the latest federal data, 36% of UC Berkeley undergraduates receive Pell Grants.

The proportion of freshmen at elite campuses who are first generation — 11 percent at Dartmouth, 12 percent at Princeton, 14 percent at Yale, 15 percent at Amherst, 16 percent at Cornell, 17 percent at Brown — nearly matches that of their low-income Pell grant recipients.

There is also this quote from Ms. Pappano’s article regarding comments by William R. Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard.

Despite efforts, the percentage doesn’t budge much, and Mr. Fitzsimmons expects it will take a generation before hard-to-reach students consider Harvard in substantial numbers. “We have a long slog ahead of us.”

Had an Ivy League administrator said that it would take a generation to achieve gender or racial diversity because women or minorities stubbornly refuse to apply, you at the Times would have rightly challenged that assertion. You would have noted examples of other leading colleges that did not seem to have the same problem. You would also have raised legitimate questions about institutional bias and victim-blaming.

Mr. Fitzsimmons’s statements were treated as valid, however. Why is it considered acceptable to blame working-class students, rather than administrators, for elite colleges’ lack of social diversity?

Despite my objections to your approach, and the NYT’s, I am not being facetious when I say that I benefited from our correspondence. I had been seeking a concise way to sum up elite media-makers’ contempt for working-class people—especially those of us who write about issues that matter to us.

You managed to do that in just two sentences: “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.”

I am grateful for that.


Chris Pepus

New York Times Fixes Error After Editor Resorts to Elitist Insult

The old New York Times building.
The old New York Times building.

I have been trying to get The New York Times to fix basic factual errors in Laura Pappano’s article on first-generation college students, which appeared in the paper on Wednesday. The Times quickly corrected a minor error. The most important factual error I reported was ultimately corrected, but only after a series of e-mails with the paper’s Education Life Editor, Jane Karr, during which she resorted to a personal insult that I find very telling.

I am providing our full correspondence. But I’ll warn you, it’s mostly a detailed discussion of statistics. The summaries I wrote below each e-mail offer a more concise account of the issues.

In the original version of Laura Pappano’s article, which I discussed in this post, there was this sentence about Washington University in St. Louis.

“Washington University in St. Louis, the least economically diverse top school, last year vowed to more than double enrollment of Pell recipients in five years, to just 13 percent.”

That wasn’t accurate. I wrote to Louis Lucero II, an assistant in the office of the Times‘s Senior Editor for Standards. He and I had corresponded about a previous NYT error (essentially the same error) that appeared in David Leonhardt’s article about Wash. U. and low-income students in January. Our correspondence was very polite, but the error wasn’t fixed. So I wrote the following message this time.

Dear Louis:

We corresponded last week regarding an error in David Leonhardt’s article on low-income students at Washington University in St. Louis. I’d like to point out that the error I reported in that article is repeated in today’s article by Laura Pappano: 

Ms. Pappano writes: “Washington University in St. Louis, the least economically diverse top school, last year vowed to more than double enrollment of Pell recipients in five years, to just 13 percent.”

As much as I like the use of the word “just” in that sentence, there are two errors.

1. Washington University’s announcement of its new goal regarding Pell numbers came in January, not last year.

2. Wash. U.’s goal of 13% Pell Grant recipients applies only to the 2020-21 freshman class, not the total undergraduate population. Therefore it is not true that the university has “vowed to more than double enrollment of Pell recipients in five years.”

Pasted below is my e-mail from last week with a more detailed account of the distinction I made in Point 2. [See the blog post linked above for that.]

Best, Chris Pepus

Summary: Just read the numbered points above.

Jane Karr, NYT Education Life Editor, wrote back.

Mr. Pepus,

Thank you for alerting us to the error in our first-gen story about the timing of WashU’s announcement. You are correct that it was mid-January, not last year, and we have corrected the copy.

On your second point, however, I don’t agree that this merits amending. The entire paragraph is about freshmen, which is how Pell numbers are reported in this article. I don’t think the reader will assume we mean total undergraduate enrollment.

Thanks again for reading.

The proportion of freshmen at elite campuses who are first generation — 11 percent at Dartmouth, 12 percent at Princeton, 14 percent at Yale, 15 percent at Amherst, 16 percent at Cornell, 17 percent at Brown — nearly matches that of their low-income Pell grant recipients. Washington University in St. Louis, the least economically diverse top school, recently vowed to more than double enrollment of Pell recipients in five years, to just 13 percent.

Summary: We fixed the error on the date, but since the previous sentence refers to freshman enrollment, readers will understand that the sentence on Wash. U. does too.

I responded.

Dear Ms. Karr:

Thanks for replying and for straightening out the error regarding the date of Washington University’s announcement. I see your point about the article’s reference to “the proportion of freshman”  [whoops, “freshmen”] in the first sentence of that paragraph. But the second sentence mentions only “enrollment of Pell recipients” at Washington University in St. Louis. That seems to refer to general enrollments rather than freshman classes, especially since Washington University is not one of the colleges mentioned in the discussion of freshman classes in the first sentence. 

But even if all statistics in that paragraph are read as pertaining to freshman classes rather than full undergraduate enrollments, the sentence on Washington University is still wrong. An increase in Pell enrollment to 13% by the 2020-21 freshman class would not constitute an increase of “more than double,” unless you have reliable information differing from that reported by both the U.S. government and Washington University administrators.     

The U.S. Department of Education’s published data on Pell recipients at each U.S. college do not break down the numbers by year in school. The figure of 6% for Wash. U., which Ms. Pappano appears to be using, applies to the entire enrollment, as of the most recent reported academic year, 2012-13.

The Education Department’s list of Pell Grant recipients by institution is available as an Excel file on this page:

Federal data on enrollments are available at this link, by entering the name of the institution in the search field, clicking “Reported Data” and going on to enrollment data. (It took me a couple tries to figure that out.)

Washington University reports that its percentage of Pell students in the current freshman class is 8%. Here is the relevant quote from the university’s January announcement, with link.

 “The percentage of Pell-eligible students in the 2014-15 freshman class has grown in recent years to 8 percent, from 6 percent in 2013-14 and 5 percent in 2012-13.”

So, barring another, better, source, Wash. U.’s percentage of Pell students in the freshman class is either unknown (according to published federal data) or 8% (according to Wash. U.). Neither supports a claim that Wash. U. will “more than double” the percentage of Pell students in its freshman class between now and 2020-21, simply by reaching its goal of 13%.

I would ask that you specify that Wash. U.’s goal of increased Pell recipients in 2020-21 refers to the percentage of freshmen, because I believe that sentence is misleading as it stands. In any case, the “more than double” quote in that sentence is contradicted by the best available sources.

Best, Chris Pepus

Summary: I don’t agree that it is clear that the word “freshmen” in the previous sentence demonstrates that the sentence on Wash. U. is about freshmen rather than students in general. The previous sentence did not mention that university. But even if you read it that way, it is not true that Wash. U. will more than double its freshman Pell enrollment in five years. Wash. U.’s goal is 13% by 2020. Its current freshman enrollment doesn’t appear in federal statistics and is reported by Wash. U. to be 8%.

Ms. Karr replied.

However fun it is to slog though ipeds data, please make your point by honing in on the  numbers. Make a screen grab of them if you will. That’s the first full year prior to 2014-15 (I doubt this  year is in the federal tables yet). So go back to what they actually have.  Provide the raw numbers and conversion.

I see that as one sentence, total. Not a series of links and instructions.


Summary: If you can’t explain all this in a sentence, don’t bother me.

I understand Ms. Karr’s frustration with the federal government’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) site, which is hard to navigate and requires scrolling through a lot of long documents displayed inside a small box on the page. But that’s not my fault.

I replied.

I didn’t send a screen grab of the IPEDS data because it is it at the end of a very long document and you have to be able to look at more than one part of the document to see what the data refer to.

Here’s the numerical issue in a nutshell. The assertion in the article’s sentence on Wash. U., based on your construction of that paragraph, is that the university will increase Pell enrollment among freshman by “more than double” between now and 2020. That would only be true if Wash. U.’s enrollment of Pell recipients in the latest freshman class were below 6.5% of total students in that class. The latest federal Pell data (2012-13) give only the total enrollment for each institution, not enrollment by class. I’ve attached an Excel file of that data. Wash. U. is on Line 993. If you don’t want to open an attachment, my last message has a link to that Excel file on the Department of Education’s website.

I already sent you the statement in which Wash. U. officials claim that 8% of the current freshman class are Pell Grant recipients. For the “more than double” quote to be correct, you must have proof that Wash. U.’s freshman Pell enrollment is at least 1.6 percentage points below the number the university reports. That proof does not exist in any federal Pell data that I have seen.  

If you have such proof, please share it with me, because I’d be very interested.

Sorry. That’s more than a sentence.

Best, Chris Pepus

Summary: You can’t say that an institution will “more than double” a number in five years unless you can prove that the starting number is less than half the ending number. You can’t, can you? Ms. Karr replied.

Mr. Pepus,

We used the latest ipeds data available in the college navigator. Under the financial aid tab ipeds offers data on both “all undergraduates” and “full-time beginning undergraduate students.” The “all undergraduate” data is 6 percent — and the “full-time beginning” is 5 percent.  “Full-time beginning” is a worthy stand-in for “freshmen” and that going from 5 percent to 13 percent is easily “more than double.” 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.

Summary: Ms. Karr doesn’t say it in the message, but the IPEDS statistics we are discussing come from the latest academic year available from that source: 2012-13 Therefore, this is Ms. Karr’s argument: The sentence that says that Wash. U. promised in 2015 to “more than double” its percentage of Pell Grant recipients in 5 years is true because, if Wash. U. meets its goal, it will have more than doubled its percentage of freshman Pell Grant recipients between 2012 and 2020.

So 8 years equals 5 years, or, to put it more simply, 8=5. Of course, I recall reading in 1984 that O’Brien demanded Winston agree that 4=5. But asking someone you just met to agree that 8=5 seems to me like real hubris. On the other hand, if Ms. Karr were able to establish that 8=5, the problem of 13 not being “more than double” 8 would disappear. So there is that. I got this message from her next.

We are correcting it. See online.

The new version of the sentence on Wash. U. reads this way:

“Washington University in St. Louis, the least economically diverse top school, in January vowed to increase freshman enrollment of Pell recipients from 8 percent to 13 percent by 2020.”

So, as you can see, the friendly editors of The New York Times are glad to fix mistakes and misleading language when readers make them aware of the problem. I’m not thrilled about the Times using the 8% figure, since the Wash. U. administration is most likely the only source for it. But I have little doubt the figure is correct, and we’ll be able to make sure when the federal government releases its data for this academic year.

There is, however, the matter of the last two sentences of Ms. Karr’s penultimate e-mail in this exchange. “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.”

You didn’t think I would let that slide, did you? See my next post.

Another Misleading NYT Article on College Social Diversity

Vanderbilt Hall, Yale University.
Vanderbilt Hall, Yale University.

In an article for The New York Times published today, Laura Pappano wrote about first-generation college students at elite private colleges. Continuing a pattern at the Times, the article presents a false, overly positive, picture of social diversity at such institutions. Pappano wrote:

Data compiled for the 1vyG conference by Dr. [Thomas G.] Mortenson shows that from 2000 to 2013, Amherst, Harvard, Brown and Princeton doubled or almost doubled Pell recipients. Yale’s growth was modest, while Cornell numbers declined slightly.

Regular readers of this blog will know where I’m going with this, but let’s go there anyway. Pappano should have noted that eligibility for the Pell Grant program has increased by 73% since the 2006-07 academic year. With such a dramatic increase in the scope of the program, elite college administrators would not necessarily have had to do anything to see a significant increase in Pell enrollment.

In fact, in percentage terms, the largest rise in Pell eligibility has been among middle-income families. The number of Pell recipients nationwide with family incomes above $60,000 per year has increased by nearly 900% since 2006-07. Many middle-class students who would not previously have qualified for Pell Grants now do. (The raw data showing the increase in Pell numbers is available here and here.) It is easy to exaggerate social diversity if we fail to note the remarkable changes in the Pell program.

Given the rise in Pell numbers nationwide, and the recent study showing that a majority of public-school students are low income, a percentage of Pell recipients in the ’teens is nothing to boast about. Those facts raise serious questions about Pappano’s assertion that “admissions offices have made efforts to find these [first-generation and low-income] students.”

Pappano also provided numbers on the percentages of first-generation students at several colleges:

The proportion of freshmen at elite campuses who are first generation — 11 percent at Dartmouth, 12 percent at Princeton, 14 percent at Yale, 15 percent at Amherst, 16 percent at Cornell, 17 percent at Brown — nearly matches that of their low-income Pell grant recipients.

As we’ve seen, it’s important to qualify discussion of Pell Grant recipients: not all are low income. Also, what source(s) provided those statistics on first-generation students at Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, Amherst, Cornell, and Brown? If those figures were reported by the colleges themselves, Pappano should have said so.

To my surprise, Washington University also came up. Not to my surprise, the Times repeated an earlier error. “Washington University in St. Louis, the least economically diverse top school, last year vowed to more than double enrollment of Pell recipients in five years, to just 13 percent.”

I thank Ms. Pappano for using the word “just” in front of “13 percent,” the only context in which that word could be applied to Washington University’s admissions policies. However, there are two errors in that sentence. First, Wash. U. announced its new proposal earlier this year, not last year.

Second, that university has not even committed to getting its overall Pell enrollment to 13% in five years. Administrators there have set a goal of enrolling a ratio of 13% Pell recipients in the 2020-21 freshman class. The university’s total undergraduate Pell enrollment that year will most likely be lower than that, possibly significantly lower, due to the percentages of Pell recipients in the sophomore, junior, and senior classes. At any rate, the university has made no commitment regarding its overall Pell enrollment for 2020-21.

That same error appeared in David Leonhardt’s January article for the NYT on low-income students at Washington University. I reported the error to the Times and corresponded on that subject with Louis Lucero II, an assistant to the senior editor for standards. The mistake wasn’t fixed in Leonhardt’s article, and here it is again. I published my correspondence with Louis Lucero here.

Maybe Times writers and editors should admit that social diversity in higher education just isn’t their subject.