High-level college admissions are in the news this week thanks to an infuriating scandal. They were in the news last fall thanks to the lawsuit against Harvard and how it selects its freshman class. I followed that case very closely and have been planning to write something about it for quite a while, but I have not yet done so. The new controversy has provoked a lot of revealing discussion about how people see the role of our top institutions in our society, and one remark, from an article this morning in the New York Times, especially caught my eye.
The article asks, essentially, whether the very rich parents who bribed their kids into Yale, USC, UCLA, and Georgetown got their money's worth with respect to their children's economic future. (Whether they got their money's worth with respect to bragging rights among their friends, or their parental self-esteem, would of course be harder to measure, although I suspect those motives were equally important.) The answer, according to some studies that researchers have done, is probably no. The children of very rich parents are likely (though not certain) to wind up well-off themselves whether they attend an elite school or not. The article cites evidence, however, that for low-income students, top institutions can have a dramatic effect. This paragraph, in particular, caught my eye:
"At the same time, research from the Equality of Opportunity Project found that while many kinds of colleges can help students move to the top 20 percent of the income distribution from the bottom 20 percent, moving to the top 1 percent from the bottom 20 percent almost always requires a highly selective institution. If you’re at all concerned about economic mobility, this underscores the waste of unfairly displacing qualified low-income students from top colleges and universities."
I have two comments here. To begin with, I honestly believe that that this paragraph captures the real motivation for affirmative action programs for poorer minorities at Harvard and other elite schools. They understand perfectly well that they are admitting (or retaining) young people into, or in, the topmost ranks of our society, and they want those top strata to be integrated, or, to use the current term, "diverse." And they are succeeding. There isn't any evidence that Barack Obama needed affirmative action to get into Occidental, Columbia, or Harvard Law School. Attending the elite Punaho school in Hawaii was enough to get him onto the top track, and his own achievements kept him there. But his accession to the White House represented the ultimate success of the strategy these schools are pursuing.
Yet that paragraph--and the pride top institutions take in their affirmative action programs--disturbs me a great deal, because it expresses a remarkably obtuse vision of what "economic mobility" means. Yes, it's inspiring when some one moves from the bottom 20% of the income distribution to the top 1%, and those who managed to do so have been the stuff of American legend from the beginning of the Republic onward. But a view that measures mobility by the ability of people to move into the top 1% is rather narrow, insofar as it totally ignores the fate of the 99% who will never get there. And these policies are doing nothing for most of them.
Yes, a diverse elite is better than a narrow one, but neither is much good to the bulk of the population within an economy that is trending steadily towards more and more inequality. They can only benefit by returning to the kind of income distribution and society that we enjoyed half a century ago, in which top marginal tax rates had just been cut from 91% to 70%, workers' wages were still rising in absolute terms, and executive salaries were a fraction of what they are today. Unfortunately, because, I suspect, of the huge expansion in their own personnel, universities today need the much richer 1% of 2019 much more than they did in the 1950s. Their admission strategies, we have learned, put a high priority on cultivating the wealthiest donors on whom they must rely for their economic future. And with respect to income inequality--to use a phrase from half a century ago--that makes them part of the problem, rather than part of the solution, no matter how many disadvantaged people they manage to funnel into the top 1%.
The excellent book Winners Take All, which I reviewed here a few months ago, analyzed the moral dilemma of the new superrich: how to feel progressive while remaining solidly within the 1%. Affirmative action as it is practiced today by elite schools is one "solution" to that problem. I have thought a lot about who is benefiting and who isn't from the Harvard admissions policies that were laid bare last fall, and I will eventually getting around to sharing my views about that.