The Thin-Envelope Crisis

America's universities are rejecting the wrong kids--and undermining the idea of merit

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TIM KLEIN / Gallery Stock

It's time for the fat and thin envelopes--the month when colleges across the U.S. send out admission and rejection notices to well over a million high school seniors. For all the problems with its elementary and secondary schools, American higher education remains the envy of the world. It has been the nation's greatest path to social and economic mobility, sorting and rewarding talented kids from any and all backgrounds. But there are broad changes taking place at U.S. universities that are moving them away from an emphasis on merit and achievement and toward offering a privileged experience for an already privileged group.

State universities--once the highways of advancement for the middle class--have been utterly transformed under the pressure of rising costs and falling government support. A new book, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, shows how some state schools have established a "party pathway," admitting more and more rich out-of-state kids who can afford hefty tuition bills but are middling students. These cash cows are given special attention through easy majors, lax grading, social opportunities and luxurious dorms. That's bad for the bright low-income students, who are on what the book's authors, Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton, call the mobility pathway. They are neglected and burdened by college debt and fail in significant numbers.

The Country's best colleges and universities do admit lower-income students. But the competition has become so intense and the percentage admitted so small that the whole process seems arbitrary. When you throw in special preferences for various categories--legacies, underrepresented minorities and athletes--it also looks less merit-based than it pretends to be. In an essay in the American Conservative, Ron Unz uses a mountain of data to charge that America's top colleges and universities have over the past two decades maintained a quota--an upper limit--of about 16.5% for Asian Americans, despite their exploding applicant numbers and high achievements.

Some of Unz's data is bad. His numbers do not account for the many Asian mixed-race students and others who refuse to divulge their race (largely from fears that they will be rejected because of a quota). Two Ivy League admissions officers estimated to me that Asian Americans probably make up more than 20% of their entering classes. Even so, institutions that are highly selective but rely on more objective measures for admission have found that their Asian-American populations have risen much more sharply over the past two decades. Caltech and the University of California, Berkeley, are now about 40% Asian. New York City's Stuyvesant High School admits about 1,000 students out of the 30,000 who take a math and reading test (and thus is twice as selective as Harvard). It is now 72% Asian American. The U.S. math and science olympiad winners are more than 70% Asian American. In this context, for the U.S.'s top colleges and universities to be at 20% is, at the least, worth some reflection.

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