Ross Douthat on Poor Whites and Access to Higher Education

Ross Douthat wrote The Roots of White Anxiety a little while ago about poor whites’ access to elite education. You should read it all:

But cultural biases seem to be at work 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.”

This provides statistical confirmation for what alumni of highly selective universities already know. The most underrepresented groups on elite campuses often aren’t racial minorities; they’re working-class whites (and white Christians in particular) from conservative states and regions. Inevitably, the same underrepresentation persists in the elite professional ranks these campuses feed into: in law and philanthropy, finance and academia, the media and the arts.

This breeds paranoia, among elite and non-elites alike.

Some of the numbers he mentioned seemed funny, and Monica Potts brings the empirics and what the study was actually saying.

But let’s concede that poor whites (and poor people of all races) are underrepresented on elite colleges for a second. A few thoughts:

1) Exclusion from elite education doesn’t strike me as the reason for the White Anxiety, even remotely. Let’s go to Glenn Beck’s CPAC speech of this year:

I’m the first person to go to college in my family. I went for one semester. I took one class. Do you know why? I couldn’t afford it. Now I never once even thought, this isn’t fair. I never once thought, I want to take it from him – how come he goes and I can’t go? I never once thought I was owed an education…I educated myself, I went to the library – books are free. I went to the bookstore. I read until two – three o’clock in the morning some nights. I still read until two – three ‘clock in the mornings after everything’s done. I educated myself. My education was free, and I’m proud of that.

(Discussing this passage with a friend over dinner, he noted that Glenn Beck’s political philosophy should be anti-library. I pointed out that it’s probably pro-library; libraries are important for conservatives because you can ban books from them. After all harassing the local librarian and banning books was one of Sarah Palin’s strongest policy achievements.)

Beck’s anxiety over education here isn’t that he went to a non-competitive school but that he couldn’t afford college at all, and the story seemed to resonant with the audience.

2) Which leads me to the next point. Douthat seems to want to expand access for poor whites to elite schools because they’ll go on to elite institutions and it’ll produce a better elite. Not that it’ll help poor Christian whites who are members of Future Farmers of America in aggregate.

This is not how I view meritocracy at all, and frankly I could care less who goes to the most elite schools. What freaks me out is the mass disintegration, defunding and private-market takeover of state colleges. By the time this recession is over more state colleges will assume their students will take on a larger debt:

There will be a greater focus on out-of-state students to juke the tuition numbers, greater focus on minimal education, and a greater blurring of a “public option” model into a for-profit corporate model. And the cuts: Georgia, exactly the kind of state that could benefit from higher education workforce at the margin, just cut half a billion. UCal is cutting. Everyone is. I used to live across the street from The Farmhouse Fraternity, full of Future Farmers of America students getting a very high-level education at the state college I was proud to attend. I wonder how fewer of them feel that they can handle the new debt level required.

To me this is what meritocracy is about, not a rich mosaic among the top 1% of Americans, but the public empowering all those capable of educating themselves and integrating themselves into the formal economy as equals provided for by the public. A broad middle class and the mobility that comes with it. College meritocracy in this realm was always an “incomplete project” (aka shutting out women and minorities), but progress was being made before the huge retrenchment underway now. I don’t think getting a few extra plates at the top will matter much for anyone.

(If I’m being cynical I’d note that the working-class and poor people who can survive in Ross’ elite circles would be so craven about their background they’d add to the trend of our country’s elites running us all off cliffs. ["Back home soldiers call themselves 'grunts', and oh boy they'd love the excitement of IEDs going off all around them!"] Charlie Sheen’s character in Wall Street knows the unions well enough to raid their pensions; I assume the Elite Future Farmers of America would know how to manipulate the commodity futures market enough to rake in the cash while the world starves.)

This is what is going to screw the upward mobility of children of poor people of all colors and background in this country, not whether or not they can squeeze into a place among the top 1%.

UPDATE: Matt Yglesias just wrote a similarly minded post (“If you were to start writing a list of the problems faced by poor people in the United States of America you’d run out of paper long before you got to elite university admissions policies”), with links to additional policy ideas and problems.

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