the dim kids of the ivy league


Sepia Mutiny links to a recent Boston Globe article called “At the Elite Colleges – Dim White Kids.” The article reports on the research of Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose of the Educational Testing Service. Using the colleges’ internal data, they examined the academic records of students recently admitted to the 146 top four year colleges (the top 8% of all such colleges). The big finding:

Researchers with access to closely guarded college admissions data have found that, on the whole, about 15 percent of freshmen enrolled at America’s highly selective colleges are white teens who failed to meet their institutions’ minimum admissions standards. (emphasis added)

That’s stunning: one of seven students at leading colleges are white students who do not meet the stated minimum standard for the school. The reason? These students are a mix of athletes and folks admitted to make alumni, donors, and political elites happy. Higher education researchers know this, but few probably expected the rate to be so high.

Let’s put that into an even bigger context: at top colleges, the group of white students who got into college through privilige (15%) is about the same size as the population of latino & black students who got in through any means at all (around 12%-15%). If you figure that a significant portion of these latino and black students were admitted under affirmative action – let’s say half – then the privileged white students are about twice as large as the entire population of meritocratically admitted under-represented minority students.

How to respond? One might be Machiavellian and say that admissions is a political and intellectual process. Long as colleges require the generosity of donors and benefit from tax exempt status, they will always admit some students on political grounds, whether it be the Senator’s kid, or a student from a poor high school. If so, college admissions offices represent America’s collective response to status and privilege. In exchange for letting in one kid because he comes from an under represented group, we let in two kids who make the alumni and donors happy. Given that colleges operate in a system where they depend on the kindness of strangers, perhaps this is the best we can expect.


Written by fabiorojas

October 18, 2007 at 3:53 am

Posted in education, fabio

12 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. My limited experience with (non-elite) college admissions tells me that those kids let in under the admissions standards cause more of their share of the trouble as well. I began to believe that it wasn’t really such a good deal for them, not only starting out way behind their peers, but knowing in many cases (at least the athletes) that they are not up to the level of their peers. I think this may well wash out any of the good opportunities presented to these students by giving them access to a great school.



    October 18, 2007 at 11:12 am

  2. Not to mention that the faculty at “elite” institutions don’t have the knowledge, incentive, experience, or time to teach fundamental skills. We are faced with the impossible choice of insisting on parity and (often) failing students who most benefit from, contribute to and enliven our classrooms OR endangering our own careers and giving preferential treatment, often on the basis of race, class, and gender, to students who already face social exclusion or even de facto residential & social segregation.



    October 18, 2007 at 11:59 am

  3. Tina: I’ve wondered about that. In the Shape of the River, Bok & Bowen argue that affirmative action may bring students whose grades are not grade, but whose life course outcomes are pretty decent. Probably the same holds for these kids, even if they know their grades and behavior will be bad.



    October 18, 2007 at 3:33 pm

  4. my great frustration with Shape of the River was that while they did a great job of putting AA in historical perspective and showing its consequences for things like retention, class rank, inter-racial friendship, later professional advancement, etc, they didn’t do the obvious thing and run a logit to show what the thing itself actually involves. (it’s a bit like writing a book on christianity that goes straight from original sin to the afterlife, while glossing over the incarnation). in fact they went out of their way to avoid it with some cockamamie excuses about how comparing median SAT per group is an imperfect method of measuring the scale of AA (which is true, and which is why you run a logit, as an econometrician like Bill Bowen almost certainly knows). fortunately this missing piece of the puzzle was very competently and candidly filled in by:
    Espenshade, Chung, and Walling. 2004. “Admissions Preferences for Minority Students, Athletes, and Legacies at Elite Universities.” Social Science Quarterly 85: 1422-1446.

    i’ve reproduced the key table here

    read it yourself, but it shows that in the 80s, being black or hispanic was worth about 250 SAT points, while being an athlete or legacy was worth about 150. (the SAT effects in the table are nonlinear and are reported as dummy sets so I’m guesstimating the exact SAT point equivalence). in 1993, it had shifted to black (250), hispanic (180), athlete (200), and legacy (120). finally, in 1997, it was black (250), hispanic (180), athlete (280) and legacy (180). also of note is that in all three periods asians were ceteris paribus least likely to get in by a decent margin.

    basically what this shows is that black preferences have been steady and large, hispanic declining from large to small, athlete increasing to very large, and legacy steady and small. at the beginning of the period, blacks and hispanics had the largest bump, now it is athletes.

    note that since the analysis is restricted to three unnamed private schools the shift cannot be directly attributed to any obvious policy shock like 209 (which affected the university of california) or hopwood (which affected U-Texas and Texas A&M).

    i think these results are pretty consistent with the report fabio linked given the raw numbers of the relevant groups and the felt need by elite colleges to fully man not just a basketball and football team but teams for weird preppy sports like lacrosse and crew as well.



    October 18, 2007 at 4:51 pm

  5. Mitchell Stevens’ new book Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites (Harvard, 2007) provides a fascinating look at the admissions process of a selective liberal arts college (widely known to be Hamilton College). A critical point he makes for organizational scholars is that admissions processes and decisions directly reflect a competition among institutions for status.



    October 19, 2007 at 1:37 pm

  6. Aaron: How does Stevens’ project or conclusion differ from Karabel’s The Chosen, except that it looks at one institution instead of three?

    Gah, I hope we’re not in for a round of semi-popular exposes on the educational admissions process, where the “innovation” of each successive project is to choose a different organization as the focus of the case study.



    October 19, 2007 at 8:51 pm

  7. I think there are lots of relevant differences. The Chosen was about the “Big Three”, and the field of competition among them is a very different playing field than the private liberal arts colleges. I think of Karabel’s study as a genealogy, whereas Stevens spent 18 months doing participant observation in an admissions office. This reveals more about the supply of applicants than does Karabel’s book, includign the forging of institutional linkages between high schools and colleges. Moreover, Stevens is more of a cultural sociologist than is Karabel, and that’s reflected in a number of themes in the book, such as the role of the body.



    October 19, 2007 at 10:06 pm

  8. […] out this recent post on the blog It appears that as many as 30% of students in top American schools have […]


  9. […] Many Ivy League students are selected on political grounds – legacies, athletes, and various “well rounded” kids: Researchers with access to […]


  10. […] surprisingly, the paper has created a stir. Bloggers Bryan Caplan, Megan McArdle, Fabio Rojas, Steve Hsu and Jim Manzi have offered up perspectives on an issue that speaks to everything from […]


  11. […] surprisingly, the paper has created a stir. Bloggers Bryan Caplan, Megan McArdle, Fabio Rojas, Steve Hsu and Jim Manzi have offered up perspectives on an issue that speaks to everything from […]


  12. […] surprisingly, the paper has created a stir. Bloggers Bryan Caplan, Megan McArdle, Fabio Rojas, Steve Hsu and Jim Manzi have offered up perspectives on an issue that speaks to everything from […]


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: