Obsessing Over Elite College Admissions Is the Opposite of Progressive
America’s broken admissions system is a symptom of a dangerously unequal society, not its cause.
As Persuasion celebrates its third anniversary, our team is proud of what we’ve achieved—and in need of a little breather. So, for the second half of August, we are republishing some of our favorite essays of the past 12 months.
From Freddie deBoer's essay on why so many apparently successful educated elites are wracked by a sense of profound failure to William Galston's incisive look at the increasingly influential national conservative movement, and from Kateryna Kibarova’s firsthand account of rebuilding in Ukraine to Blake Stone-Banks’ reflections on leaving China after two decades, here is some of the content of which we are especially proud. I hope you enjoy discovering or rereading these texts, and I look forward to sharing a lot of exciting new material with you when we return at the end of the month.
Imagine the entire cohort of U.S. graduating high school students this year as a group of one thousand bright-eyed 18-year-olds: kids of every class and race, spanning the whole spectrum of talent, wealth and oppression. What should the goal of progressive politics be for them? Where should attention be focused?
Let’s look at our thousand more closely. 380 of them—overwhelmingly poorer and disproportionately black, Latino, and male—will stop their school careers here. They’ll go directly into the workforce, where they’ll earn less and live worse than most of the rest of the group.
Another 190 of our original thousand will enroll in a two-year college. Just 55 of them will actually complete a two-year degree within six years. The other 135 will fail to get any qualification, and they will be at a particular disadvantage in the workforce.
You might think the left would focus their energy like a laser beam on the 570 out of every thousand graduating seniors who never enroll in a 4-year university in the first place. Racial minorities dominate this group, and their socio-economic results are terrible. If you’re actually concerned about social and racial justice, this is where you need to look.
Alas, our conversation is mostly about the 430 of every thousand graduating high school seniors who will enroll in a 4-year college program. And not even about all of them, because most will attend schools that admit most or all of the students who apply.
Yet when it comes to affirmative action in college admissions, the debate isn’t really about those 430. It’s not even about the 200 or so who will go to universities where admissions are truly competitive. In reality, those 200 all know that the best jobs, the best salaries, the social status, and the leadership roles will mostly flow to the tiny handful who manage to get a coveted place at a highly selective university. The holy grail.
Those elite places are scarce. According to Pew, they represent just 4.1% of student enrollment: roundabout 18 out of every thousand graduating seniors.
It just so happens that American society is organized in such a way that access to the very highest sphere of economic and social success is, with rare exceptions, limited to people who snatch one of those spots. Those elite spots represent the single entry point into the American ruling class: naturally how they are distributed is of intense interest… to the American elite.
The result has been the college admissions arms race Americans have seen mushroom alongside income inequality since the 1980s. It is a natural result, just what happens when the people with the most social capital and the most money grasp the outsized returns to snatching one of those 18 out of a thousand spots for their children. It’s in this context that we need to interpret the Supreme Court’s decision to ban racial preferences in college admissions.
Highly selective universities are on average much more likely to use racial preferences in admissions. But even under affirmative action, these schools were also less diverse than average: around 21% of students at the top elite schools are black or Latino. Without affirmative action, we can expect that number to decrease further. Where before, two or three of our 18 spots might have gone to black or Latino students, the figure going forward may be more like one or two.
That, in essence, is the question that has consumed the American elite since the end of June, when the U.S. Supreme Court pronounced itself narrowly on a question of direct interest to a minuscule group of black and Latino high achievers who may not have achieved quite highly enough to win a spot at a highly selective university without affirmative action. This, we’re told, represents a decisive blow against racial equality.
The reaction to the decision paints a picture of a left that’s lost any sense of what the left is for; a left less concerned about the existence of a system of oppression than with the racial identity of the people granted access to the leadership of that system.
To be on the left used to mean to center the interests of the 982 over the interests of the 18. For a century and a half since the modern left first emerged, it knew that its job was to champion the interests of what Marxists used to call “the masses”—the vast majority of people systemically excluded from the top spots in society. For 150 years, the left understood its role to be to improve their lot, not to vie for admission into the elite that stood over them.
The reason seems plain enough: the people who run the elite media, advocacy, and educational institutions that dominate civil discourse are overwhelmingly graduates of highly selective colleges themselves. Whether they’re white, black, Latino, or Asian, they’re almost all from the handful of highly selective colleges and universities to which affirmative action effectively applied.
As Freddie DeBoer puts it, “the real media bias is writing for each other.” It’s only natural that they are obsessed with the system that put them in the position to wield the influence they wield.
The American elite as a whole is so habituated to this kind of cut-throat competition for elite college places that it doesn’t seem able to imagine a different reality. Like the proverbial fish, it doesn’t realize it’s immersed in water.
From where I sit, some 50 miles north of the border in Montreal, a whole alternative way of organizing a modern, prosperous North American society is not only imaginable but perfectly mundane.
At 0.26, Quebec’s Gini coefficient—the standard measure of income inequality, where a lower score represents a smaller gap between rich and poor—is much lower than it is in the United States, where the figure is a very high 0.375. We’ve still got rich people and poor people up here, but the rich are fewer and not as rich, and the poor are fewer and not as poor.
One upshot of a much less unequal society is that the stakes to college admissions are much lower. You have less to gain, but you also have less to lose. While Quebec students still compete for admission to the best universities, we see nothing like the all-out war for elite college places south of the border. Yes, a bright Montreal high schooler would still prefer to go to McGill University than to its less prestigious cross-town rival, Concordia University. But honestly, it’s just not that big a deal. A Concordia degree doesn’t rule you out of elite jobs, nor does a McGill degree guarantee access to the best ones. The attitude is that one college degree is more or less equivalent to the other.
It’s the same in the rest of Canada (Gini coefficient 0.28) and in much of Europe, too. In Germany (Gini coefficient 0.29), Sweden (0.29), and Denmark (0.27), the best universities are certainly better than the worst ones, but not that much better. Failure to secure an elite place doesn’t blight your prospects in anything like the same way such a calamity would in the United States.
It’s only when society is harshly unequal that the stakes of the admissions game rise to such spectacular, unhealthy extremes that the entire public sphere can become transfixed by the question of who gets one of the golden tickets and who doesn’t.
But obsessing over who gets into the elite isn’t left-wing politics (or it wouldn’t be in a sane public sphere.) The left is supposed to exist to agitate for people who aren’t anywhere near spitting distance of elite status: to champion their concerns, their needs, their interests. The knife-fight over entrance to elite colleges is the peculiar preoccupation of the bourgeoisie. It’s a very strange place the United States has maneuvered itself into where this is the litmus test for progressive politics.
Francisco Toro is a contributing editor at Persuasion.
This piece was originally published on May 24, 2023.
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