As we've been discussing, 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" time in activities like athletics, or in holding a part time job also seemed to have a negative effect, and what those activities have in common is that they take time away from purely academic pursuits. Of all the markers that seemed to matter to admissions officers, this was merely a side note.