Oh, boy… I just read an op-ed piece in the New York Times addressing the role of elite universities in transmitting social privilege from one privileged generation to the next. As a graduate of one of those elite universities (Sasha and I both attended Princeton and have the dubious distinction of being children of alumni as well) my problem with articles like this isn’t that I dispute the problem. There is no question that the makeup of each class at each elite university does not reflect a fair sampling of all those students qualified to attend, and there is no question that we would all benefit greatly if it did. It isn’t even that I feel the solutions they propose are wrong—I don’t know nearly enough to be able to speak intelligently on what the best solutions are, and don’t get
me Sasha started on the pure evil that is the test-prep racket. My problem is that, seemingly inevitably, these articles imply, if not state right out, that this is the result of some form of spiteful hoarding of privilege by a wealthy few who do everything they can get away with to keep the poor who are storming the barricades at bay. No doubt there are some few who feel this way just as there really are those few who still regularly write in to the alumni weekly decrying how the admission of women has ruined the university, but in my experience these are the exceptions and rare ones at that.
The piece ends with what is, to me, a particularly stinging and false assessment:
Last, and not least, by undermining the dubious assumption that the applicants admitted are those with the most merit, a lottery might promote a certain measure of humility — a quality in short supply in the upper rungs of the “meritocracy” — among admission officers and students alike.
The idea that Ivy League students have an arrogantly lofty idea of their own intelligence is deeply counter to my own experience and contributes to many of the stereotypes that lead to a difficulty in getting students who don’t attend elite high schools or have connected parents to consider an elite university as an option. My own experience of Princeton, and one that has been confirmed among many of my friends, was precisely one of humility. Because every Princeton student was at the top of their high school, academically, you quickly and graphically learn that you are not special. No matter how smart you think you are, someone else is smarter and smarter by a very great deal. Rare is the person with a level of arrogance so great that they can live through that demonstration and still think they are hot stuff because they got some good grades, read some difficult books, or got a degree.
On the contrary, it often seems that the assumption of Ivy League arrogance comes from everywhere but the people who attend them. Sometimes simply admitting where you went to college is interpreted as arrogance: A usual response is something along the lines of “Gee, you must be pretty smart, huh?” This can lead to a pretty ridiculous effort to downplay the affiliation. One of the biggest problems, as I see it, is that the general population views elite universities like Princeton as something foreign. As a different world. The high school I attended was generally lower-middle class, and while they prided themselves on sending a high percentage of their students to college, I witnessed not a single bit of encouragement to even the brightest students to consider elite schools. The only students who did apply to elite schools were those who had the background and resources to investigate them on their own. The elite universities of this country were simply not in the world that my high school expected it’s students to live in. Similarly the reaction that my mom would usually get from other parents was to say that they could never consider Princeton because there is no way they could afford it, never mind that with their greater resources, elite schools can often provide much more generous aid, frequently with no debt, than other seemingly more affordable schools. People just don’t consider them enough to even investigate them because their first reaction is that those are schools simply don’t exist in their world.
As I’ve said a number of times now, the admissions departments of the elite universities must do more to make admissions fair and to expand access to disadvantaged students (and they are), but the problems lie on both sides of the “divide”. I’m always a little disheartened when I read articles that reinforce the idea that Princeton and other elite universities exist in a different world from the one in which “normal” people live. As long as people keep on believing that, it will remain true.