The Other Diversity Mania

When we hear talk about the “need” for greater “diversity” on American campuses, the speaker is almost always talking about racial/ethnic diversity – the assumption that some students are more “interesting” and will add more to the school just because of their ancestry. Sometimes, however, the individual has something else in mind, specifically “socio-economic” diversity. Foremost among those who argue that selective colleges should aim to enroll more students from poor and “working class” families is Richard Kahlenberg. He has just contributed a long essay to Chronicle Review entitled “How Much Do You Pay for College?”

In the essay, Kahlenberg says that it was formerly “taboo” to talk about the socio-economic class of students (a Marxian-sounding notion that sounds odd in a nation where there are no distinct classes of people), but that more colleges are now considering his quest for affirmative action to enroll more students who come from relatively poor families.

Why should they do so? Kahlenberg’s egalitarianism shows when he writes that while community colleges spend about $13,000 per student, private research universities spend $67,000 per student, leading him to declare, “we are showering the greatest opportunities on the already advantaged.” There is the first logical error Kahlenberg makes – thinking that the level of per student spending indicates anything about quality of education.

We know that isn’t true in K-12, where many cities that spend the most (e.g. Washington, D.C.) have miserable results, while other cities that spend much less have better results, and sometimes parents who homeschool their children have excellent results at very little cost. And it isn’t true in higher education either. Students at a community college or a non-prestigious college where spending is low often have attentive professors who take their teaching very seriously. On the other hand, students in the prestigious universities Kahlenberg admires often find that they are taught very indifferently.

Kahlenberg also maintains that we ought to adopt socio-economic diversity because, “Access to professional networks at selective colleges can translate into greater wages, especially for students from low-income backgrounds.” Perhaps so, but let’s examine this more closely.

Bear in mind that his preference policy does not mean the difference between a student going to an elite school and not going to college at all. It’s the difference between going to an elite school and going to a school a notch below it in the fuzzy world of college rankings. Here in North Carolina, for instance, it might mean going to Chapel Hill instead of East Carolina.

Now, the student might do as well at Chapel Hill as at ECU, although the well-known and documented mismatch theory indicates that there’s a good chance that the preferentially admitted student will slide into an easy major at the more rigorous institution. Let’s give Kahlenberg his best-case scenario—the student graduates with a degree in a solid discipline (engineering, we’ll say) from Chapel Hill. Then what? Kahlenberg thinks he’ll earn more. That might be true initially, but in the long run, people’s earnings depend overwhelmingly on their productivity, not their educational pedigree.

And even if this student does enjoy slightly higher earnings with his more prestigious engineering degree, what’s the social gain? Kahlenberg seems to think that we’ll have struck a blow at our “class structure,” but the tiny marginal gain to a few “lower class” students who would have succeeded at another college anyway hardly seems worth fighting for.

Furthermore, those gains (taking the college prestige notion seriously) must be offset by losses to other students. When Chapel Hill turns down a student whose family is lower middle class to make room for the student whose family is “working class,” people like Kahlenberg will applaud, but America is no more fair or “socially just” for it.

Shuffling a small number of students around from less-prestigious colleges to more-prestigious ones is just a distraction from the real problem we face, which is that primary and secondary education for many poorer families is abysmal. That’s where the egalitarians should concentrate their efforts.

Socio-economic diversity was never a “taboo.” Almost no one has ever fretted about it simply because there is no reason to do so.

Posted by: George Leef

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