The graph below is from the Brookings Institute in a blog post, Rising Inequality in Postsecondary Education. But I found out about it via Matt Yglesias who is on a mini-jihad against those who would donate to the top tier “name” schools, Seriously, Don’t Give Money To Fancy Colleges. What the graph shows is that poor kids are under represented even in the moderately competitive schools, much less the elite institutions.
My opinion is that one is likely to get a worse education at the elite colleges. The only reason they are thought to be good is only the very best and and best prepared students are allowed in. I suspect you could take that subset of students, have them do nothing but drink beer for four years, and they would turn out quite well. That’s especially true given that the vast majority of them are from well-to-do families, their careers would be set regardless. The fact is that having a diploma with “Harvard” printed on it means a whole lot more than having a Harvard education.
The larger point is that the elite institutions perpetuate the existing social order by giving further advantages to the already advantaged. Yet they do it in such a way as to give themselves plausible deniability. Just as the Republican Party can trot out a few black conservatives as an argument that it isn’t racist, Harvard can trot out a few poor students as an argument that their primary mission is something other than reinforcing the status quo.
As Yglesias puts it:
This all comes back to a point I have made many times before: democracy cannot exist in an economy that isn’t reasonably equitable. One of the primary uses of a person’s wealth is to improve the prospects of his children. There’s nothing wrong with that; we are mammals, and that’s how our brains are built. But when one man has billions and another man has nothing, there can’t be any notion of equality of opportunity.
Look at that graph again: 70% of the students at elite colleges come from the upper class. That isn’t just because those in the upper class can afford the prices at these schools. It is also a reflection of the fact that the upper classes have given every other advantage to their children for two decades before that. It starts even before they are born, in the form of better prenatal care. So it’s no surprise that most of those 70% also have high SAT scores—they’ve been invested into their whole lives in ways that simply aren’t available to poor children.
All of this comes from hedge fund manage Kenneth Griffin’s recent $150 million gift to Harvard. Seen clearly, this isn’t about helping the rich; it’s about oppressing the poor. But what would you expect from a Wall Street billionaire?