Ross Douthat Should Have Read the Study.

[cross-posted from TAPPED]

Ross Douthat spent his precious column real estate Monday on the plight of poor, white Christians from red states who suffer disproportionately, he says, from elite-college admissions policies that favor lower-income black and Hispanic students over them. He borrows liberally from a blog post by Russell K. Nieli on Minding the Campus, who based his argument on a year-old study from two Princeton University social scientists, Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford.

The study looked at admissions rates for seven elite colleges. The study definitely found, as Nieli wrote, that admissions officers give preference to lower-class black and Hispanic applicants, but it’s worth looking at that fact in context. Overall the applicant pool was extremely well off: only about 10 percent of the applications to elite institutions, public or private, came from lower- and working-class families, and only about 19 percent of those applicants were admitted to elite private schools (acceptance rates to the public institutions didn’t correlate highly with class). The private schools in the study did tend to weigh lower- and working-class black and Hispanic applicants more heavily than their better-off counterparts, but there wasn’t an advantage for lower- and working-class whites compared with whites from higher socioeconomic levels who, incidentally, made up most of the applicants. Other studies show this likely stems from a failure to account for a sort of income-based achievement gap, and not, of course, outright animosity toward poor whites. It’s also possible that schools want to admit students who can pay first, but many elite colleges have need-blind admissions processes.

The important thing is that, overall, the study shows what we already know. The vast majority of applicants to elite institutions and the vast majority of those admitted are white and middle- or upper-middle class. Where Douthat goes really astray, though, is when he borrows Nieli’s claim that cultural markers seemed to make a difference as well.

Nieli highlights one of the study’s more remarkable findings: while most extracurricular activities increase your odds of admission to an elite school, holding a leadership role or winning awards in organizations like high school R.O.T.C., 4-H clubs and Future Farmers of America actually works against your chances. Consciously or unconsciously, the gatekeepers of elite education seem to incline against candidates who seem too stereotypically rural or right-wing or “Red America.”

It’s too bad that Douthat seems not to have read the actual study, because he would have found that that’s, at best, overreaching with the data.

The researchers looked at a broad category of “career-oriented” activities, of which those groups could be examples, and found that there was a “statistically significant but small negative correlation,” as Espenshade described it in a brief phone interview, with having held leadership positions in those groups or having won an award in them and being admitted to an elite college (just being a member didn’t make a difference). The study says, “These activities include ROTC and co-op work programs. They might also encompass 4-H Clubs, Future Farmers of America, and other activities that suggest that students are somewhat undecided about their academic futures.” Spending “too much” in activities like athletics, or in holding a part time job also seemed t have a negative effect, and researchers thought it had more to do with the time those activities take away from purely academic pursuits. Of all the markers that seemed to matter to admissions officers, this was merely a side note.

Nieli, and then, bouncing of him, Douthat, uses that to extrapolate that rural, working-class white Christians are suffering because liberal elites actively discriminate against them, but that assumes that the 4-H participants and FFA members were definitely captured in that data, when the researcher only said career-oriented programs might include them. That also is really only a proxy for rural, Red-state-ness, and assumes that conservatives are the only ones who join those groups. It also assumes that the admittedly interesting fact that career-oriented activities are negatively correlated with admissions to elite institutions has something to do with political orientation, when it’s unclear what, exactly, those numbers mean.

All this was curious to me, since I’m from that very group Douthat and others, like Daniel Foster at the National Review, are suddenly so concerned about. My family was fairly poor when I was young, but by the time I was applying to college had worked its way to tenuous working-class status. I was raised in a town of 2,000 in rural Arkansas, and though I wasn’t a member of FFA I took an agriculture and shop class in middle school, learned how to shoot a rifle (though not very well), and was vice president of Future Homemakers of America (hey, everyone should learn to cook). I had decided at a very young age that I wanted to go to Harvard, but by the time my feminism was ignited as a high schooler I was applying to the former Seven Sisters schools instead. I admit I  identified as liberal, but I’m not sure how that would have come out in the application process, while I can tell you for sure that the fact that I started and ran a church youth group did. At Bryn Mawr College, I had always operated under the assumption that my status as an Arkansan was a bonus for admissions officers; the only other Arkansan there when I arrived was a graduating senior, and her absence without my presence to replace her would have robbed Bryn Mawr of the “all 50 states represented” bragging rights that elite colleges love to have.

I doubt Bryn Mawr was one of the colleges studied, since it’s too small, but when I spoke to Espenshade, he confirmed that idea was true. He said the research hadn’t looked at whether applicants were from rural areas, since there was really no way to tell that, but had looked at state of residence at the time students applied to college. “In most cases the state you apply from doesn’t have any bearing,” Espenshade says. “In those cases where it does, and a particularly strong bearing, the effect tends to be positive and is concentrated on red states. If you were applying from Montana or Utah or from Alabama . . . there is a greater likelihood of being admitted to top schools.” That positive effect swamps any negative one from being an ROTC officer.

As Adam, and Tim have noted, this concern for poor whites over poor blacks is misplaced, since whites have such a large advantage over people of color in almost every way possible in every area of life, regardless of income. It also assumes that helping lower-income students get into school is a zero sum game, and the fact that colleges are helping lower-income blacks and Hispanics is only done so at the expensive of lower-class whites. The obvious problem is how easy wealthier Americans have it in a system that is supposed to run on merit. (But I can also tell you that the majority of rural folks I know who hate the northeast liberal elite don’t sit around and think about how Harvard doesn’t want them. Resentment of the north is rooted in racial animus as old as the Mason-Dixon line). We should, of course, worry about poverty, and about the disadvantages poor students of all races face in applying to, being accepted into and actually graduating from college, but that’s really not what these writers are concerned with. They are mostly concerned with the racialized narrative that would have us believe whites are suffering in the Obama era, the same kind of narrative that led to a horribly racist letter from the Tea Party after the NAACP criticized it and the same kind of narrative that got Shirley Sherrod fired for being honest about race. Moreover, it’s clear, to me at least, that moving into elite social circles, and the advantages they provide, after graduating from a top-tier institution is much easier for whites than it is for blacks and Hispanics. The markers of poverty, at least the visible ones (except, I would argue, having bad teeth), are easy to shake, but discrimination based on one’s race is a constant. Racism, apparently, even makes it onto the editorial pages of the New York Times in the guise of an explanation for “white anxiety” based on perceived prejudice against rural, red state whites at elite institutions that doesn’t exist.

  • Good poins. I think Douthat should write a column about changes in financial aid policy over the last 30 years that favor middle class students (e.g., the George HOPE Scholarship based on merit; growth in federal loan programs while stagnation in the buying power of federal/state need-based grants).

    Or he could look at the declining support for state public institutions and 2-year colleges where most students of any race attend postsecondary education. This in turn is made up by students and their families with increasing tuition. Such a small number of the 4-year college population attends elite Ivy Leagues, but such a great amount of attention is paid to admissions there. In fact, most 4-year institutions are not even selective.

  • I really enjoyed reading this. I’m so tired of half-stepping when it comes to analyzing studies and data. Seems like the media is becoming so lazy and quick to draw conclusions that feed into America’s fears/fascinations of the minute.

    • April

      I’m so tired of half-stepping when it comes to analyzing studies and data.


    • quadmoniker

      In fairness, a real reporter, especially for the Times science section, wouldn’t have been able to do this, they would have had to read the study. The editors don’t have a lot of power over the columnists because they’re employees of the publisher more directly. But the fact that he’s a columnist and doesn’t report is part of what what made me so mad about it. Ross Douthat has the force of the Times name behind him. Anyone would call him back in a heartbeat. But I don’t think he called.