Commentary | Education

Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education

Share this page:


Equity and excellence in American higher education

By William G. Bowen, Martin A. Kurzweil, and Eugene M. Tobin.
Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005.

Reviewed by  Richard Rothstein 

In their Supreme Court brief for the 2003 Michigan affirmative action case, a group of Ivy League and similar institutions (including Harvard University, Dartmouth College, the University of Chicago, and Duke University) claimed that race preferences are part of a broader elite-college admissions system where advantages are routinely given to many groups, including athletes, artists, alumni children, and applicants from low-income families

In Equity and Excellence in American Education, William Bowen, Martin Kurzweil, and Eugene Tobin say that the last claim is false; instead, low-income applicants get no advantage and have only the same chance of admission to elite colleges as others with similar SAT scores. High school seniors from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t get the extra consideration that athletes, alumni children, or racial minorities receive.

But saying that low-income students have the same chance of getting into elite colleges as others after controlling for SAT scores is like saying that high school varsity and top-ranked tennis professionals have an equal chance of beating Roger Federer after controlling for tennis skill. Varsity players aren’t as skilled as the pros, and low-income students don’t have the SAT scores of other applicants.

Consequently, students from families in the bottom quartile of the income distribution comprise only about 11 percent of elite-college enrollment. Bowen and his coauthors say this underrepresentation is a serious problem for three reasons. First, the American economy is faltering in competition with other nations for scientific skill and can’t afford to waste the talent of disadvantaged children. Second, students learn more from having socioeconomically diverse classmates, and this opportunity is limited in elite-college classrooms. Third, if elite colleges don’t promote social mobility, the nation’s democratic legitimacy will be endangered.

The authors conclude that low income applicants, most of whom are white, should get a distinct affirmative action program. If they got the same “thumb on the scale” as alumni children (a 20 percent admissions advantage over others with the same SAT scores), low income enrollment would increase to 17 percent.

It is a provocative proposal in an important book (a judgment I make not only because the authors rely on some of my son’s work for aspects of their argument not dealt with in this review). But it is regrettable that the authors did not have the inclination or space to examine several assumptions upon which they rely. Income-based affirmative action is unlikely to garner support if its theoretical foundations are flawed.

If we do suffer from a science and engineering crisis, mobilizing the untapped talent of low-income students is probably not an efficient way to address it. As the uproar over remarks of Harvard president Lawrence Summers suggests, any possible shortage of science  students would be easier to solve by encouraging more middle-class women already attending college to choose science majors.

And the scientist shortage may itself be exaggerated. Although scientific fields are growing, this high-percentage growth starts from such a small base that we should have little difficulty filling the relatively few new positions created. Bowen and his coauthors make much of the substantial pay premium for college graduates, but the professionals whose compensation growth is mostly responsible for this advantage have been managers and sales workers. Pay of scientists and engineers has been stagnant, suggesting no skills shortage of the sort the authors fear. Overall, pay for recent college graduates has been falling over the past few years, and with fewer employers offering health insurance, recent college graduates’ compensation has fallen even more.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2012 only 28 percent of U.S. job vacancies will require college education, a growth of only 1 percent from 2002. The international economy may be more competitive (“flat,” in the formulation of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman), but this does not mean an economy of knowledge workers. Even in the likely event that the bureau’s projections are overly cautious, it remains the case that most vacancies—for jobs like cashiers, janitors, home health aides, waiters, and waitresses—will require little formal education. Credential inflation is a more likely consequence of expanded college enrollment than elimination of nonexistent skills shortages.

Increasing the share of lower-class children who attend elite colleges is a good idea. But national economic necessity doesn’t demand it.

A better reason is the belief of Bowen and his coauthors that elite colleges have a political and moral obligation to increase the nation’s social mobility. With growing income inequality, there is now more awareness that upward mobility—the share of adults who occupy a higher relative place in the income distribution than their parents did at a similar age—is no greater here than in other industrialized nations.

Can class-based affirmative action loosen the barriers? The authors note that affirmative action can be only a stopgap, because children from lowerclass families are less likely to prepare for college and take the SAT, and if they do take it, they have lower scores. The authors properly observe that overcoming these problems requires reform of the social and economic context (like health and neighborhood environments) in which lower-class families raise children, provision of adequate early childhood care and instruction, and improvement in   the quality of elementary and secondary schools. Unfortunately, having described the need for both socioeconomic and school reform, the authors discuss mostly the latter, reinforcing the flawed conventional view that schools, if only run properly, could generate classless outcomes even when students come from highly stratified backgrounds. But even this discussion of developing more college-eligible high school students is circumscribed in one perfunctory chapter, reflecting, apparently, the authors’ lack of interest in it, despite the centrality to their argument of the underrepresentation of low-income students in the college applicant pool. In contrast to the meticulous way in which the authors handle higher education data, when it comes to elementary and secondary schools they dismiss solid evidence that students’ preparation has not deteriorated by saying that “many college faculty certainly have the impression that the quality of [high school] math and science instruction has fallen off.”

Unchallenged in Equity and Excellence is the myth that mobility is blocked only on the “supply side” (too few well-prepared lower-class students) and not on the “demand side” (too few upper-class opportunities). After all, for every child from the bottom income quartile who rises to the middle or even top quartile, there must be a child from the upper classes who falls. This logical outcome can be modified a little by differential fertility or by immigration—for example, if the upper classes produce too few children to replace themselves in the occupational structure, while the lower classes produce too ma
ny, or if immigrants fill slots at the bottom while economic growth creates more slots overall—but, for the most part, mobility must have losers as well as winners. Expanding the number of low-income students attending elite colleges requires displacing some high-income students who currently get those spaces. Without a system that makes it politically, socially, and economically acceptable for affluent children to lose in this competition, it is hard to see how a “thumb on the scale” for poor children can overcome middle-class resistance or sabotage.

Consider, for example, the frenetic competition among better-off children for access to the very elite colleges to which Bowen, Kurzweil, and Tobin want to increase lower-class access. SAT prep classes, resume padding, application coaching and the like all reflect the insight of middle-class parents that high status positions are limited.

Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, noted in discussion last year of Equity and Excellence at the Brookings Institution that not only are children from the lowest quartile of the income distribution underrepresented at elite colleges; so, too, are children from the second and third quartiles. Children from the upper quartile are overrepresented, with 50 percent of total enrollment.

There is more SAT score overlap between low- and middle-income applicants than between low- and upperincome applicants. Gutmann observed that the “thumb on the scale” for lower-class applicants proposed by the authors is likely to succeed mostly at the further expense of the middle class, not of the most privileged. Whether this is a politically or morally viable strategy for enhancing social mobility is a topic for Bowen and his colleagues to tackle in their next book.

Richard Rothstein is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. and visiting professor at Teachers College, Columbia University.


See related work on Education

See more work by Richard Rothstein