Wake Forest University

March 2012

Rethinking Admissions

Continuing the Conversation

Archive for March, 2012

A Response to Charles Murray on Narrowing the Class Divide

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

From The Century Foundation

By Richard Kahlenberg

Charles Murray, the author of the much-discussed book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, (and, years ago, the widely discredited volume, The Bell Curve) has an op-ed in today’s New York Times outlining some solutions to the growing class divide that he depicts in Coming Apart.

Among his ideas is to “replace ethnic affirmative action with socioeconomic affirmative action.” Murray writes: “This is a no-brainer. It is absurd, in 2012, to give the son of a black lawyer an advantage in college admissions but not do the same for the son of a white plumber.”

I’ve been a long time advocate of class-based affirmative action, going back to my 1996 book, The Remedy: Class, Race and Affirmative Action, so on the one hand I’m pleased by his article, but in other ways I am dismayed.

Today, educational disadvantages are much more closely tied to socioeconomic status than to race. Research from The Century Foundation published in 2010 finds that socioeconomic disadvantages predict a student SAT score that is 399 points lower than the most economically advantaged student, while African Americans are predicted to score 56 points lower than whites. In other words, an affirmative action program that is trying to identify “strivers”—students who have beaten the odds and have more potential than their raw standardized test scores suggest—would weight class disadvantage about seven times as heavily as race. Today universities do roughly the opposite, providing substantial preferences based on race, and very little weight to socioeconomic disadvantage.

This may all soon change, as the U.S. Supreme Court is slated to hear a challenge to the use of race in the case of Fisher v. Texas this fall. There is strong reason to believe the Supreme Court will severely curtail the use of race in admissions, in which case universities would likely shift to emphasizing socioeconomic status as an indirect way of producing racial diversity.

It is good that hard-core conservatives such as Charles Murray are going on record in support of socioeconomic affirmative action now, so that in event the Supreme Court curtails the use of race, they cannot then turn around and attack class-based preferences with a straight face. Still I have three concerns about Murray’s New York Times op-ed.

First, Murray’s essay pits the black lawyer’s son against the white plumber’s son. But there are lots of black and Latino plumbers’ children who would also benefit from class-based affirmative action. These students generally do not benefit from racial and ethnic preferences today, as the vast majority of minority pupils admitted to selective colleges are more advantaged students of color. Indeed, for those of us who care about racial diversity, the fact that class-based preferences will disproportionately benefit students of color is a great selling point. Century Foundation research finds that, in a post-affirmative action world, class-based preferences would boost the proportion of students who are black and Latino at the nation’s most selective 146 universities from 4 percent (if a strict admissions based on grades and test scores were used) to 10 percent. Employing factors such as family wealth could boost the racial dividend of class-based affirmative further. It may not be surprising that an author like Murray, most famous for suggesting that blacks are genetically inferior, wouldn’t care much about racial diversity, but for many progressive proponents of class-based affirmative action, this is a key attraction.

Second, after proposing class-based affirmative action, Murray oddly undercuts his own proposal, saying it—and the other ideas he proposes—“won’t really make a lot of substantive, immediate difference.” He claims, “even without socioeconomic affirmative action, a high proportion of academically gifted children from the working class already get scholarships to good schools.” This is not true. According to Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl’s research for The Century Foundation, 80 percent of wealthy students scoring in the top quartile attend a four-year college, compared with 44 percent of top scorers who are low-income. At the most selective 146 colleges and universities, one is twenty-five times as likely to run into a rich kid as a poor kid. If economic affirmative action were implemented in these institutions, the proportion coming from the bottom socioeconomic half of the population would rise from 10 percent to 38 percent, and graduation rates would remain as high as they are today.

Third, in focusing on affirmative action at selective colleges, Murray misses a chance to discuss a solution to the problems outlined in Coming Apart that would involve a much larger number of students: socioeconomic integration of K–12 education. Our nation’s schools are increasingly segregated by economic status, and that segregation leads to significantly different life chances. As reported in a just-released Century Foundation volume that I edited, The Future of School Integration: Socioeconomic Diversity as an Education Reform Strategy, low-income students who have a chance to attend more affluent schools are two years ahead of low-income students stuck in high-poverty schools on the fourth grade National Assessment for Educational Progress. Carefully controlled research (using lotteries) seeking to address selection-bias finds enormous benefits to attending lower-poverty schools as compared with higher-poverty schools—even when higher-poverty schools spend more money per pupil. As the book notes, today more than 80 school districts educating almost 4 million students use socioeconomic status in student assignment policies, up from just a handful of districts a decade ago. Importantly, most of these districts use choice and incentives (such as magnet schools) rather than compulsory busing, to achieve an economically integrated environment. And because these programs employ economic status, they pose no constitutional problems associated with racial integration policies struck down by the Supreme Court in Seattle and Louisville in 2007.

Both approaches—socioeconomic affirmative action to economically integrate selective colleges, and socioeconomic integration of K–12 schooling—can help address the economic divisions that Murray identifies, and, more importantly, that President Obama has targeted as “the defining issue of our time.”

Narrowing the New Class Divide

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

From The New York Times

By Charles Murray

There’s been a lot of commentary from all sides about my recently published book, “Coming Apart,” which deals with the divergence between the professional and working classes in white America over the last half century.

Some of the critiques are fair, some are frivolous. But there’s one — “He doesn’t offer any solutions!” — that I can’t refute. The reason is simple: Solutions that are remotely practicable right now would not do much good.

The solution I hear proposed most often, a national service program that would bring young people of all classes together, is a case in point. The precedent, I am told, is the military draft, which ended in the early 1970s. But the draft was able to shape unwilling draftees into competent soldiers because Army officers had the Uniform Code of Military Justice to make their orders stick.

Administrators of a compulsory civilian national service program would likewise face young people who mostly didn’t want to be there, without being able to enforce military-style discipline. Such a program would replicate the unintended effect of jobs programs for disadvantaged youth in the 1970s: training young people how to go through the motions and beat the system. National service would probably create more resentment than camaraderie.

That said, I can see four steps that might weaken the isolation of at least the children of the new upper class.

For one thing, we should get rid of unpaid internships. The children of the new upper class hardly ever get real jobs during summer vacation. Instead, they get internships at places like the Brookings Institution, the American Enterprise Institute (where I work) or a senator’s office.

It amounts to career assistance for rich, smart children. Those from the middle and working class, struggling to pay for college, can’t afford to work for free. Internships pave the way for children to move seamlessly from their privileged upbringings to privileged careers without ever holding a job that is boring or physically demanding.

So let the labor unions win this one: If you are not a religious organization and have more than 10 employees, the minimum wage law should apply to anyone who shows up for work every day.

We can also drop the SAT in college admissions decisions. The test has become a symbol of new-upper-class privilege, as people assume (albeit wrongly) that high scores are purchased through the resources of private schools and expensive test preparation programs.

Instead, elite colleges should require achievement tests in specific subjects for which students can prepare the old-fashioned way, by hitting the books.

Another step would replace ethnic affirmative action with socioeconomic affirmative action. This is a no-brainer. It is absurd, in 2012, to give the son of a black lawyer an advantage in college admissions but not do the same for the son of a white plumber.

Finally, we should prick the B.A. bubble. The bachelor’s degree has become a driver of class divisions at the same moment in history when it has become educationally meaningless. We don’t need legislation to fix this problem, just an energetic public interest law firm that challenges the constitutionality of the degree as a job requirement.

After all, the Supreme Court long ago ruled that employers could not use scores on standardized tests to choose among job applicants without demonstrating a tight link between the test and actual job requirements. It can be no more constitutional for an employer to require a piece of paper called a bachelor’s degree, which doesn’t even guarantee that its possessor can write a coherent paragraph.

If I’m advocating these ideas now, why didn’t I propose them in “Coming Apart”? Because, sadly, they won’t really make a lot of substantive, immediate difference. Internships that pay the minimum wage are still much more feasible for affluent students than for students paying their own way through college. The same students who score high on the SAT score high on achievement tests, and for the same reason (they’re smart and well prepared).

Even without socioeconomic affirmative action, a high proportion of academically gifted children from the working class already get scholarships to good schools. And even if job interviews are opened up to people without a bachelor’s degree, those with the best real credentials will still get the job, and they will be drawn overwhelmingly from the same people who get the jobs now.

There may, however, be a symbolic value in these reforms. The changes that matter have to happen in the hearts of Americans. The haves in our society are increasingly cocooned in a system that makes it easy for their children to continue to be haves. Recognizing that, and acting to diminish the artificial advantages of the new upper class — especially if that class takes the lead in advocating these reforms — could be an important affirmation of American ideals.

Charles Murray is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author, most recently, of “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.”

Admissions 101: Do you prefer college acceptances and rejections be done by Web site or envelope?

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

From The Washington Post

By Jay Matthews

At the end of this month, college acceptance and rejection notices go out. I visited Wake Forest University last week and discovered, to my shock, that they still send theirs by mail, in a paper envelope you have to tear open. I thought everyone had switched to the dedicated Web site approach. You get the codes to access each college’s special page for the good or bad news, go there on the designated day, close your eyes, click your mouse, and bam, there it is.

Wake Forest draws many applicants who appreciate its old-fashioned southern charm. Using the U.S. mail to deliver this crucial information like everybody did in my day is part of the package. If we had the choice, blogmates of any age, which would we prefer?

I can see how the Web site way is quicker and less frustrating, and eliminates the need to run home at lunch period as see if the mail has arrived. But I still like the mystery and romance of physically holding the envelope and opening it and unfolding the letter. And I think the old way may be less prone to major goofs that result in many people being told they were accepted when the opposite was the case.

Anybody with me on this? Do you know of other colleges that are sticking to the mailed announcement? Which method do you like best? Vote below and tell us more about your selection in the comments.

How would you prefer to be notified about your college acceptance or rejection?

Faculty Role in Admissions

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

From Inside Higher Ed

By Joseph Soares

Following my presentation last year at “The Case for Change in College Admissions” conference at the University of Southern California, a dean from one of America’s most prestigious universities said, “We know the SAT and ACT are not good predictors of college grades, but our faculty resist going test-optional. They are worried about standards.”

While the debate over standardized tests and college admissions began 20 years ago, the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room is faculty complacency and ignorance. Nearly all of the 870 colleges that are test-optional today have gone that way due to leadership from administrators or admissions deans. It’s a harsh reality, but as winners at the testing game many faculty are oblivious to the damage done by a test that is statistically redundant and socially discriminatory. It’s time to set the record straight.

Faculty members need to know that college admissions remain more art than science. As documented in my new book, SAT Wars: The Case for Test-Optional College Admissions, our best statistical models predicting first-year college grades explain only about 30 percent of what’s going on, leaving 70 percent of what matters unknown. In those models, the academic variable carrying the most weight is always high school grades, while the unique statistical contribution of test scores is marginal: for example, at Johns Hopkins it adds two percentage points; at the University of Georgia one percent; and at DePaul one percent.

In my book, the president emeritus of the University of California Richard Atkinson and Berkeley statistician Saul Geiser stress, “[i]rrespective of the quality or type of school attended, cumulative grade point average (GPA) in academic subjects in high school has proved to be the best overall predictor of student performance in college. This finding has been confirmed in the great majority of ‘predictive-validity’ studies conducted over the years, including studies conducted by the testing agencies themselves.”

When not being “truth-optional” in their public relations spin, even the tests’ sponsors concede that the single variable that most highly correlates with college grades is high school grades earned over four years, not test scores derived from four hours of stress on a Saturday morning.

Rather than leveling the playing field, standardized tests such as the SAT and the ACT perpetuate social discrimination in the name of academic selectivity. Whereas high school GPA and class rank do not correlate with family income, the SAT and ACT can’t say that. Defenders of the tests say they are fair and the social disparities expressed in scores sadly reflect the unfairness of life, but the reality is that family income, gender, and race predict test scores more powerfully than test scores predict college grades.

As a result, the tests create a costly, anxiety-ridden and time-consuming distraction from real learning. They undermine the high school curriculum, sending the wrong signal to youth that test prep – which typically costs hundreds, if not thousands of dollars – will get you further than hard work in class. Would standardized testing have such a powerful and distorting impact on the whole of the K-12 experience if the SAT or ACT were not required by colleges for admissions?

Faculty need to know that rather than lowering standards, test-optional admissions raise them, and there’s new data to prove it. Wake Forest University went test-optional three years ago, and since then we’ve seen first-year students from the top 10 percent of their high school class jump from 65 percent in 2008 to 83 percent this year. Pell Grant recipients have doubled. Our student body is more racially and socioeconomically diverse than ever before. Library usage is up, and classroom discussions are reportedly livelier than before.

It’s just as Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade predicts in SAT Wars: going test-optional increases the social diversity and academic strength of students at private colleges, and being “don’t ask, don’t tell” at public universities does the same. We expect to see universities that drop the requirement, including most recently Clark University and DePaul University, rewarded with stronger and more diverse applicant pools in the near future. Test-optional enriches the campus experience. So what would it take to end this farce?

Charles Murray, a contributor to SAT Wars, believes that action by top colleges such as Harvard or Stanford would push us past the tipping point. “If just those two schools took such a step, many other schools would follow suit immediately, and the rest within a few years.” He adds, “Admissions officers at elite schools are already familiar with the statistical story … They know that dropping the SAT would not hinder their selection decisions.”

The aforementioned dean asked me to send a copy of SAT Wars for an overdue discussion amongst faculty at that prominent institution. With data from Wake Forest and other schools that have removed the requirement on the table, it’s time for professors at America’s most prestigious colleges to set the myths aside and take their position of academic leadership seriously. It’s time to do your own research, hold a discussion, contribute to the national debate, and vote. Don’t be part of the problem when you hold the solution in your hands.