Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Universities, privilege and hypocrisy

Via Jason Stanley, an Economist article about the "bastions of privilege and hypocrisy" that are American universities.
No less than 60% of the places in elite universities are given to candidates who have some sort of extra “hook”, from rich or alumni parents to “sporting prowess”. The number of whites who benefit from this affirmative action is far greater than the number of blacks.
We can probably discount sports scholarships as accounting for a fraction of that 60%, which implies that a solid majority of the student body at America's top universities were accepted (at least in part) for completely unmeritocratic, classist reasons. A majority.

I'd be interested to see what percentage of students in top Canadian universities are "hooked" applicants. I suspect we ought to be grateful that our major universities are public institutions and aren't completely beholden to rich alumni. Back at SFU I remember hearing that some visiting prof from some big-shot American university had remarked that the SFU undergrads were generally brighter than the ones at his home institution. At the time I figured that was empty flattery, but maybe it was just a matter of his usual students having more money than brains.

Two points from the article I found particularly curious.

You might imagine that academics would be up in arms about this. Alas, they have too much skin in the game. Academics not only escape tuition fees if they can get their children into the universities where they teach. They get huge preferences as well. Boston University accepted 91% of “faculty brats” in 2003, at a cost of about $9m. Notre Dame accepts about 70% of the children of university employees, compared with 19% of “unhooked” applicants, despite markedly lower average SAT scores.
I'm a bit more ambivalent about tuition waivers--it might be considered a relatively harmless job perk. But my objectivity is impaired here, since I'm hoping to be one of those academics someday. In any case, it's clearly outrageous (embarrassing, pathetic) that the applications of children of faculty should get preferential treatment.

Asian-Americans are the “new Jews”, held to higher standards (they need to score at least 50 points higher than non-Asians even to be in the game) and frequently stigmatised for their “characters” (Harvard evaluators persistently rated Asian-Americans below whites on “personal qualities”).
Well, this was the first I'd heard of that. I did some googling, and it turns out that race-based affirmative action policies benefit only non-Asian minorities, and admission "hooks" tend to go to whites.


scott said...

"University employee" doesn't just mean academics, the support staff gets that perk too. I don't have a problem with it.

Toby said...

Does the fact that the kids of support staff also get a boost on their applications make the boost seem less terrible? I don't see how.

scott said...

I thought the problem was the upper-middle class replicating their social advantage through nepotism. I think that since all university employees get that perk, not just the high status, (relatively) highly paid academics, then it's more an issue of general fairness, rather than a class issue, which is what the rest of the article seemed to be about.

I can live with the unfairness, so long as it doesn't cut along class lines.

Toby said...

Well, I don't know how many academics count as upper-middle class. I remember a former prof being fond of remarking on how he'd make more money as a garbage man.

But, in any case, you're right, the issue is most serious when it's a class issue.

It's not clear to me that non-academic university employees generally get the same boost on acceptance rates. The Notre Dame stat suggests that (at that particular institution) the kids of non-academic employees get some boost or another, but I would be a bit surprised if the administrative assistant's kid got the same benefit on applications as the prof's kid. And it seems pretty common for a large part of the low-skilled labour on campus to be contracted out to other companies, such that those workers probably wouldn't count as actual employees of the university.