The Myth of the Meritocracy: Brilliant But Poor Kids Are Not Even APPLYING To Top Colleges

By Ian Reifowitz

Contemporary conservatism is based around one simple myth: those at the top deserve to be there, and so do those at the bottom. A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research helps destroy that myth.

From the report’s summary:

The vast majority of very high-achieving students who are low-income do not apply to any selective college or university. This is despite the fact that selective institutions would often cost them less, owing to generous financial aid, than the resource-poor two-year and non-selective four-year institutions to which they actually apply. Moreover, high-achieving, low-income students who do apply to selective institutions are admitted and graduate at high rates (emphasis mine).

One of the most interesting findings is that those relatively few poor but high achieving students who do end up applying to top schools are NOT more disadvantaged (in terms of their own income or the income of their neighborhood) from the vast majority of low-income, high-achieving students who do not. But, the study found that those who do not apply to the most selective colleges:

“come from districts too small to support selective public high schools, are not in a critical mass of fellow high achievers, and are unlikely to encounter a teacher or schoolmate from an older cohort who attended a selective college.”

The New York Times had a front page article on this issue in Sunday’s paper, and did an excellent job honing in on the details.

This graphic tells the story. Unfortunately, one cannot embed this image in the post.

The graphic divides high-achieving students (essentially the top 4% of high school graduates, based on their grades and scores on the SAT or ACT) into three income groups: Low (below $41,472 in family income), Middle , and High (above $120,776).

In the low income category, only 8% of students pursued what is considered the “recommended strategy”, i.e., “applying to a range of colleges, including “reach,” “match” and “safety.” Another 39% followed an “idiosyncratic” strategy such as applying to only one selective college. A full 53% applied to not a single top college, despite their high likelihood of both getting in and succeeding if they attended. In the high income category, 64% did what was recommended while only 11% applied to no top schools.

The results of the poor (no pun intended) application strategies of these high-achieving, low income students is that only 34% of them ended up attending one of the 238 most selective colleges in America. 78% of high-achieving, high income students attended such an institution. The disparity is astounding, and further exacerbates income inequality, as even among students of similarly high levels of achievement, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The problem is worst for those low-income, high achievers who live outside of the biggest 15 metropolitan areas, as those students too often “lack exposure to people who say there is a difference among colleges,” according to one of the study’s authors.

What’s even worse is that the poor but brilliant kids who end up at less selective colleges typically don’t graduate, compounding the problem. The most recent data shows that 89% of those who go to top schools are on pace to finish their degrees or had already done so, compared to only 50% of those at other colleges.

The NYT article makes the connection between this issue and affirmative action, which is once again before the Supreme Court, asserting that: “Elite colleges may soon face more pressure to recruit poor and middle-class students, if the Supreme Court restricts race-based affirmative action.”

Personally, I think they need to do more to recruit high-achieving poor students irrespective of what happens before the Court on affirmative action. Separate from the question of ethnic diversity, it is clear that the wealthy are overrepresented among students at top colleges within every ethnic group.

A system where wealth makes one more likely to end up attending a top college is not a meritocracy. Period. Selective colleges are run by people who I believe are committed to progressive values (there really aren’t a lot of right-wing academics, believe me). But they are simply not doing a good enough job ensuring that their classes include kids who have achieved great things but come from a low-income background.

By not doing so, elite colleges cement in place the barriers that prevent the cream from rising to the top. Such barriers harm the high-achievers who don’t reach their potential, and they harm the rest of us by denying our society of their talents. The system must change now.

Ian Reifowitz teaches history at Empire State College of the State University of New York and is author of Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity (Potomac Books, 2012). This post appeared on Daily Kos.

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