Thursday, July 15, 2010

White Racial Profiling in College Admissions

Steve reports on a study examining college admissions that is disturbing on all sorts of levels:

A new study by Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade and his colleague Alexandria Radford is a real eye-opener in revealing just what sorts of students highly competitive colleges want -- or don't want -- on their campuses and how they structure their admissions policies to get the kind of "diversity" they seek.

. . .

The box students checked off on the racial question on their application was thus shown to have an extraordinary effect on a student's chances of gaining admission to the highly competitive private schools in the NSCE database. To have the same chances of gaining admission as a black student with an SAT score of 1100, an Hispanic student otherwise equally matched in background characteristics would have to have a 1230, a white student a 1410, and an Asian student a 1550.

Anti-white discrimination, of course, is old news.  But the anti-poor discrimination surprised me:

At the private institutions in their study whites from lower-class backgrounds incurred a huge admissions disadvantage not only in comparison to lower-class minority students, but compared to whites from middle-class and upper-middle-class backgrounds as well. The lower-class whites proved to be all-around losers. When equally matched for background factors (including SAT scores and high school GPAs), the better-off whites were more than three times as likely to be accepted as the poorest whites (.28 vs. .08 admissions probability).

. . .

When lower-class whites are matched with lower-class blacks and other non-whites the degree of the non-white advantage becomes astronomical: lower-class Asian applicants are seven times as likely to be accepted to the competitive private institutions as similarly qualified whites, lower-class Hispanic applicants eight times as likely, and lower-class blacks ten times as likely. These are enormous differences and reflect the fact that lower-class whites were rarely accepted to the private institutions Espenshade and Radford surveyed. Their diversity-enhancement value was obviously rated very low.

Back when I was applying to colleges from Nowheresville, Latin America, all the brochures I received promised “needs-blind admissions”.  Do they still promise this?  Or were they always lying?

Steve argues that the preference for rich students is driven by the preference for rich alumni, which is a sad commentary on a school’s confidence in its own value-added.  But a disturbing possibility presents itself:  that a student’s class background is a better predictor than even his own academic portfolio; that admissions committees know this; and that we have truly reached the Brave New World end-state where parentage determines merit.

Arguing against this possibility is the fact that we now have anti-conservative, anti-Republican discrimination:

Besides the bias against lower-class whites, the private colleges in the Espenshade/Radford study seem to display what might be called an urban/Blue State bias against rural and Red State occupations and values . . . .  [W]hat Espenshade and Radford found in regard to what they call "career-oriented activities" was truly shocking even to this hardened veteran of the campus ideological and cultural wars. Participation in such Red State activities as high school ROTC, 4-H clubs, or the Future Farmers of America was found to reduce very substantially a student's chances of gaining admission to the competitive private colleges in the NSCE database on an all-other-things-considered basis. The admissions disadvantage was greatest for those in leadership positions in these activities or those winning honors and awards. "Being an officer or winning awards" for such career-oriented activities as junior ROTC, 4-H, or Future Farmers of America, say Espenshade and Radford, "has a significantly negative association with admission outcomes at highly selective institutions." Excelling in these activities "is associated with 60 or 65 percent lower odds of admission."


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

1. For context, I'm pretty ambivalent on race-based affirmative action. I generally believe that being smart, driven, and knowing what you're doing matter more than racism in the absence of affirmative action and affirmative action's penalization of whites and Asians.

2. I am more supportive of needs-based affirmative action because the "knowing what you're doing" is one of those things that seems to trend pretty heavily along socio-economic lines. I am also aware that what RBAA does accomplish would be similarly accomplished if we had NBAA but without the Constitutional problems and (I think) without causing as much bad blood.

3. Alumni-status is an oft-given reason, but it's not the only one. Coming from money also means being more likely to have connections and (where applicable) better letters of recommendation. It also means you're more likely to know "how to play the game" when it comes to the application process.

4. Additionally, most of the subjective criteria are going to favor the well-off. I mean, if you look at my high school transcript, my GPA was good but nothing special and my class rank was not in the top quarter. But I also went to a five-star high school. So by most mathematical standards, it may look like I had options I shouldn't have had. That's an incomplete picture, however.

5. I think that class background is going to be a good predictor of future success, generally. But that isn't their only interest. Class background (and being white) is also going to be a good predictor of whether you will donate to the alumni association when you get out. I've read in California this is a big reason behind anti-Asian bias. They view their relationship with their alma mater as a business one and they're stingy with donations. They don't dress up in warpaint and go to football games. They don't "buy in". Nor do a lot of lower-class whites and NAMs. In some cases, it doesn't even occur to them to donate.

6. The only thing listed here that genuinely surprises me is the last bit about 4H and FFA. Makes sense when I think about it, though bodes poorly for my future kids if we stay in the area where 4H and FFA are pretty big deals. On the other hand, getting into highly-selective institutions is not our top priority.

7. Except medical school and a few other avenues. One of the reasons I am ambivalent about AA is that (contra-Sigma) I believe you can succeed even if you don't go to elite institutions. But even state school for med school is extremely competitive and cutting off that entire career avenue to poor kids that would otherwise qualify and be capable of doing the work does concern me.

Φ said...

Trumwil: Regarding point 3, there may be someting to knowing the game. I cringe when I remember I mailed in my MIT essays without having my English teachers so much as proofread them. I can about guarantee that nobody who actually got in did that.

Regarding point 5, the surprising finding is not that class background matters but that the admissions disparity is so large even after actual academic performance is controlled. But I understand the alumni donation issue. I'm very Asian myself in this regard: I've never donated a dime to my undergrad school (a state school football powerhouse); I'm proud of my school, but my emotional relationship with it is, um, complex.

Okay, so the schools are in it for the fundraising. Fair enough: they're private schools, so they can do what they want. But they are still recipients of federal largess. It's not like they should be completely free from accountability.

Anonymous said...

One of the reasons I am ambivalent about AA is that (contra-Sigma) I believe you can succeed even if you don't go to elite institutions.

Agreed - this is one thing I tried to argue at SOTAD when it was suggested that modern America is not, in fact, the meritocracy it is often touted to be. (Though I think perhaps different definitions of “success” are applied by opposing parties in these discussions.)

In any event, one reason I prefer the university system in Canada is that up here it really doesn't matter whether you went to an “elite” college or not. Higher education, like society as a whole, is less class-stratified here, and the gulf between the best and the worst universities is much less than in the US.

Speaking of bias against applicants with conservative activities on their resumes, when I applied to medical school, I seriously fretted over whether to include my past Christian groups/clubs/etc. as part of my history. Of course, I was much less mature then, and in retrospect I don't think it should have caused me nearly the anxiety that it did. But I bring this up to make the interesting point that here in Canada, because society is generally much more left-wing, there is actually less systemic bias against conservative backgrounds. I believe the feeling is essentially that right-wing attitudes are more of an oddity or eccentricity rather than a true threat, so they don't need systematic elimination.

Anonymous said...

(Though I think perhaps different definitions of “success” are applied by opposing parties in these discussions.)

I think this is true. And it's further complicated by the fact that success is defined so differently in different parts of the country. The northeast in particular seems to have a particular rigid definition. Perhaps in part because you have to do so well to live comfortably in NYC (for example), but I get the sense that there's more to it than that.

Anonymous said...

I cringe when I remember I mailed in my MIT essays without having my English teachers so much as proofread them.

It wouldn't even occur to me to have an English teacher proofread it. Further, in a school of 4,000 where each teacher teaches 120+ students, it could be an imposition. Other schools, though, have special programs for that sort of thing.

the admissions disparity is so large even after actual academic performance is controlled.

That's true. Though I am not surprised by it, I wouldn't have guessed it, either.

It's not like they should be completely free from accountability.

Agreed. My comments were not a defense as much as an observation. When I was introduced to the situation of Asians and UCLA the whole thing irked me.

Φ said...

Trumwill: there is something I wanted to add about why I think this is an important problem. I largely agree with you that an Ivy League education is not the sine qua non of human existence. A person can make a plenty good living with a state-school education provided he studies something marketable. It's not really fair, but someone who doesn't come from money probably ought not be majoring in the humanities; if he's not smart enough to study engineering, accounting or whatnot then he would be better off in the trades.

But here is what bothers me: the Ivy League appears to be the minimum entry standard for high levels of government service. (Just ask Harriet Myers or Sarah Palin.) If we tell poor whites applying to college that no amount of intelligence and industry can compensate for their low socio-economic origins, we guarantee that our ruling elites will never come from a hard-scrabble or even middle-class background, and we guarantee that our ruling elites will never even know anyone like that.

I think that's why we get the policies we get: solicitous concern for minorities, indifference toward non-X/SWPL, non-upper-middle-class whites.

Anonymous said...

That's a pretty good point, Phi. So (other than getting rid of RBAA, which might help some or may no noticeable difference if the minorities are simply replaced by more upper-crest whites and Asians) what would you propose be done about it?

Φ said...

Trumwill: a fair question, one to which I do not have an answer. The best I can do would be to require greater transparency so we can fully scrutinize the reasoning behind admissions, and proceed from there.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough.

I meant to add, regarding government services and alma maters, one thing that impressed me about John Edwards was that he went to North Carolina and NC State. Despite having no use for the man (though his positions on the issues were better than some, he was a trial lawyer that seanced dead babies while suing doctors for malpractice... not hard to imagine how well that went over with the wife and me), I remember thinking at the time that it would be neat to have a president that went to state college.

With Palin, I don't know that it was so much that she went to the University of Idaho but that she didn't excel there (and she bounced around from college to college). Had she graduated near the top of her class and not given other indications of lacking intelligence, I don't think it would have been any more an issue for her than NCSU was for Edwards, Kansas for Dole, and so on.

Harriet Miers got a raw deal, though. Not so much that she didn't get the spot but rather that having gone to SMU Law (not exactly Southern U Law School) somehow turned into proof of something really bad. I think the rules are more strict for appointees. Particularly in the judiciary.