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How Public Universities Prioritize Wealthy White Students

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White people.  

By Kate Haverston

A lot of folks in America and beyond still refuse to believe in the concept of white privilege. Some of them even believe the ‘white man’s’ way of life is under threat, or that he’s somehow become an endangered species in the age of globalization and inclusion. It’s an awkward moment in history to believe such things.

The truth is, the wealthy and the white do have reason to be frightened — just not for the reasons that leap into Lindsey Graham’s head as he lays in bed at night. Put simply, they’ve had it too good for too long.

Senator Lindsey Graham (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

As hordes of overgrown children take to America’s streets to march against inclusiveness, the rest of us are left figuring out how to build a different world — a better world.

With that in mind, we turn our attention to the U.S. public university system. There’s a lot to love about it. With a few changes, it could be the envy of the world. But anybody watching the news lately should have come to the conclusion that there’s something very wrong with the way American educational institutions make their admissions decisions.

Spoiler alert: You’ve got a much better chance of getting in if you’re white and wealthy. Is this really a surprise?

What Does the Evidence Say About Admissions Patterns?

In March 2019, the Joyce Foundation, with researchers from the Universities of California and Arizona, released a report concerning “Off-Campus Recruiting by Public Research Universities.” What they found was alarming, though hardly a surprise:

“A small number of universities exhibit recruiting patterns broadly consistent with the historical mission of social mobility for meritorious state residents … However, most universities concentrated recruiting visits in wealthy, out-of-state communities while also privileging affluent schools in in-state visits.”

Super white people.

Most of us grew up believing in America as a meritocracy. But we’ve landed in a moment in our history where only a “small number” of our public universities seem to actually believe in that ideal themselves. Meritocracy done American-style evidently means giving a leg up to folks who don’t need it.

The researchers continue:

“In contrast to rhetoric from university leaders, our findings suggest strong socioeconomic and racial biases in the enrollment priorities of many public research universities.”

In other words, it’s not just wealthy communities and well-off high schools which receive the lion’s share of recruitment efforts from universities, but predominantly white communities as well.

Of the 15 universities included in the study:

  • 12 schools made more recruiting visits to out-of-state communities than to in-state ones; 7 schools made twice as many visits.
  • Every school included in the study were vastly more likely to recruit students from “high-income communities” than from low-income ones.
  • A majority of schools included in the study visited predominantly white high schools and avoided high schools with higher-than-average percentages of colored students.

The researchers summarized their findings like this:

These recruitment and admissions preferences “contribute to a student composition where low-income students of color feel increasingly isolated amongst growing cohorts of affluent, predominantly white, out-of-state students.”

Not the Only Study

This wasn’t the only research project to paint a dispiriting portrait of socioeconomic and racial preferences among American universities. A report prepared by The Education Trust revealed similar findings:

  • Only half of state community and technical colleges admit a share of black students which is “representative” of the communities they serve.
  • Out of 41 states studied, just four (Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia) admit a representative population of black students in four-year universities.

Andrew Nichols, representing The Education Trust, said this about the group’s findings:

“We’re still more comfortable blaming individuals of color for failing to get a higher education, despite knowing that there are gross inequalities in the P-12 and college systems in terms of funding, teacher experience, access to rigorous curricular options, and the like … We’ve been doing things around the margins that pay lip service to equity, but we’re not doing enough to break up the systems that are designed to push certain people away.”

Yet another study revealed that 38 public and private universities enroll more representatives of the nation’s wealthiest 1% than they did from the entire bottom 60% of American income earners.

A Rigged System

Lest we forget, or imagine this is a problem exclusive to state university systems, recall that national headlines lit up this spring with the news that dozens of wealthy white people knowingly bribed “Ivy League” schools into admitting their dumb, affluenza-addled children instead of kids who might actually deserve the “honor” of being there. As of April 2019, 14 of the defendants had accepted plea deals in “atonement” for their actions. This, after cumulatively paying $25 million to help their kids cheat their way to the top. Kids, mind you, who’d already been born with the world at their feet.

It’s good that their poor choices are now public knowledge — but plea deals do little to correct hundreds of years of American history, which have seen the scales tilted definitively toward the white and the affluent. It couldn’t be much clearer that America’s “meritocracy” is rigged from top to bottom.

And by “bottom” we mean the problem begins in grade school, where K-12 schools depend on property taxes to function. So long as this is the case, poorer kids will always be at a disadvantage — long before out-of-state colleges swoop in to cherry-pick wealthy seniors from neighboring counties and states.

There was a point in American history, not too long ago, when we collectively took pride in the quality and success of our public universities. We didn’t see it as a luxury, or optional, or a fun day camp for rich kids. Public colleges and universities were usually tuition-free when they were founded and continued that way through the 1800s and most of the 1900s. Rice University in Texas didn’t start charging students tuition until 1965.

Somewhere along the line, we were convinced by wealthy politicians and their even wealthier patrons that college shouldn’t be a part of the social contract any longer. It’s not a surprise: these are the people who benefit most from an electorate that remains unfamiliar with basic geography and critical thinking skills.

With public funding drying up more and more year after year, colleges had little choice but to raise their prices on a regular basis — or rely on the token philanthropy of a handful of employers with tuition reimbursement programs — to ultimately culminate in the situation we’ve just described: cherry-picking out-of-state kids from wealthy families, who can absorb the ever-higher tuition costs much better than poor and middle-class families.

Systemic racism is a huge part of the problem, to be sure. But there’s an ugly pragmatism here too: public universities choose wealthy white kids because they want to keep their doors open. But the reason our schools are in existential danger in the first place is because America often acts as the land of socialism for the rich and austerity for everybody else.


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Alex Mak - Managing Editor

Alex Mak - Managing Editor

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