The Inside Track to Elite Colleges: Not Just White and Wealthy

Outside Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (Dominick Reuter/Reuters)
An academic makes a misleading argument about college admissions.

In the wake of the college-admissions scandal, some pundits believe they now have license to make sweeping generalizations about elite higher education, no matter how unmoored from reality their arguments might be. What else could explain the bizarre op-ed that appeared recently in the Washington Post by a well-respected researcher?

The author of the piece, Anthony P. Carnevale, the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, uses the admissions scandal to argue that entry into selective colleges has always been rigged to favor white and high-income families. While it’s true that there are a lot of high-income, white students at those schools, Carnevale’s evidence about how those students were admitted should have raised a red flag at the Washington Post. Here is how Carnevale begins his argument:

The shocking part of the scandal is that wealthy, connected people actually thought they had to cheat to get their children into selective colleges. They already have plenty of avenues for “honest” graft: bypassing anything resembling a fair process and rigging the game in their favor. These include separate admissions tracks or standards for legacies — children related to alumni — as well as applicants connected to donors, politicians, and college employees and officials. There’s an inside track and an outside track, and if you don’t know about the inside track, your kids aren’t on it.

Now that Carnevale has many of his readers nodding in agreement, he’s going to break out some research to start making his case about another characteristic of these well-connected and privileged students who were admitted under separate standards: They are not very smart.

Our research shows that 25 percent of all students attending colleges in the two highest tiers of selectivity (about 200 of the most elite colleges in America) have SAT scores that are well below the average test scores of entrants to those institutions.

There’s the red flag. The research cited is nothing more than a description of how averages work. Some students are well above average; some are well below average. It’s tautological pablum. But maybe Carnevale is going to tell readers who those students in the bottom 25 percent of the test scores are. He has certainly primed readers to think they are the students on the “inside track.” Here is his very next line:

If admissions were based on test scores alone, more than 40 percent of the white students already enrolled in such institutions would have to leave.

In other words, dumb, rich, white kids are getting into selective colleges based on lower test-score standards. That’s what the back-to-back placement of Carnevale’s statistics strongly implies: The bottom 25 percent of test scores must belong to 40 percent of the white students at selective colleges. And that appears to be what Carnevale intends readers to think, because he immediately asks, “How did they get in?” and then continues to argue that it’s not due to merit.

When it comes to college, there are two very different Americas. To most of the country, college is supposed to be a meritocracy, a reward to those who have worked the hardest and sharpened their talents. To the wealthy and connected, on the other hand, America’s selective colleges are their birthright, the final step in the youthful coronation to an aristocracy posing as a meritocracy.

But Carnevale has pulled a fast one on his readers. His two statistics — the one about the students with below-average test scores and the other about 40 percent of white students having to leave based on test scores alone — are not at all connected. The first, if it has any meaning, refers to all students enrolled at selective colleges. The second refers only to white students, but from all income groups. Moreover, the second statistic doesn’t even specify what test score cutoff would force 40 percent of white students to leave, a crucial piece of information. It turns out to be about 1190 on the SAT (combined math and verbal scores).

Based on Carnevale’s argument and statistics, it’s fair to assume that if students at selective colleges with SAT scores below 1190 all had to leave, those schools should become more racially diverse (less white) and more economically diverse (fewer high-income students). After all, 1190 is the cutoff that he implies would boot out all of the low-scoring white students who were admitted based on their wealth and connections. Yes, set the admissions cutoff at 1190 on the SAT, and 40 percent of the white students would have to leave, although half of these students actually come from families earning too little to meet Carnevale’s definition of wealthy.

It would also mean that 60 percent of Hispanic students and nearly 70 percent of black students would have to leave. As a result, the remaining student body would be whiter (and more Asian) and wealthier. The share of white students would increase from 63 percent to 67 percent of the student body, and the share of high-income students would increase from 47 percent to 52 percent. Contrary to what Carnevale implies, at selective colleges, white students and high-income students have higher SAT scores on average than low-income and middle-income students, as well as black and Hispanic students.

Keep in mind, I’m not proposing that colleges determine admissions standards by test scores alone. It’s Carnevale who is complaining that there is an alternative track into selective schools, one with lower standards that is not meritocratic, which he identifies using test scores.

Most observers understand that admissions standards based strictly on high test scores are often in tension with achieving a more racially and economically diverse student body at selective colleges. But Carnevale wants readers to think those goals are not in tension, and he does this by arguing — erroneously — that the surest way to get into an elite college if you have a subpar test score is to be rich and white. Unfortunately, many who read the Washington Post op-ed may have bought his argument.


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