Sunday, December 11, 2016


How hard is it to get into college?

It depends on what you mean by “college.”  If you mean an accredited institution that grants degrees, community colleges and many public four-year colleges are either open-admission or nearly so.  If you mean one of the elite colleges that occupy most of the brainspace in policy talks, then it’s considerably harder.  

Anthony Carnevale uses the language of “separate and unequal” to describe our system -- hearkening back to the language of segregation -- and he’s substantially correct.  Community colleges enroll far higher percentages of students of color than do the Ivies, but the value of the tax exemptions at the Ivies far outstrips the appropriations we get, especially on a per-student basis.  In between falls the state flagship university, which is whiter than the community colleges and better funded, but more diverse than the Ivies and less well funded.

It’s almost as if there’s a...pattern.

Ivies and flagships get caught up in discussions of affirmative action as a way to diversify their student bodies.  The assumption is that there’s a fixed number of seats, and a seat given to one student is denied to another; allocation is a zero-sum game.  WIthin those fixed numbers, setting a preference for one group -- be they legacies, athletes, racial minorities, or whatever -- means de facto raising the bar for everyone else.  The argument is hard to settle because it’s the wrong argument.

If you accept that only about two dozen colleges and universities are, and ever can be, very good, then the question of seat allocation becomes crucial.  But why accept that premise?

Historians tell us that segregation didn’t fall from the sky.  It was consciously built, and maintained, and adjusted over time.  It still is, though generally not by that name.  It’s built into the environment in ways that seem, in the course of daily life, to be natural, inevitable, and unalterable.  But it’s none of those things.
The late Leonard Cohen sang that “there’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”  We’ve seen cracks in the system from time to time.  The CUNY of the 1930’s and 1940’s gave rise to a generation of intellectuals that far outstripped their Ivied contemporaries in depth and impact.  In the Clark Kerr era, the California system was the envy of the world.  Until very recently, Wisconsin boasted a university that could compete with the best in the country.  

It can be done.  We can reject the logic of lifeboating (or “undermatching,” as the wonks call it), and instead decide to make public colleges and universities at all levels worthy of their students.  If we did, we could dial down the pressure on the elites to solve the social engineering problem on their own.  Frankly, they aren’t up to it.

I used to say that the root of the struggle for community colleges is that they were built to create a middle class for a country that doesn’t want one anymore.  I don’t think that’s quite right.  The country has forgotten that middle classes have to be created and recreated; they aren’t the ‘default’ setting of capitalism.  After decades of economic polarization, you’d think that would be obvious, but the power of amnesia is strong.  Ivies and elites are piling up endowments that would have been considered indecent in earlier times, while community colleges suffer cascading rounds of austerity.  It takes conscious effort to reverse that.

The narrowing of opportunity isn’t only a higher ed problem, of course, but it’s vivid and controllable here.  If the public colleges and universities were as strong for a racially mixed generation now as they were for a much whiter generation thirty or forty years ago, the affirmative action debates wouldn’t matter so much.  It’s a solvable problem.

Check out Carnevale’s piece.  It’s timely, accurate, and vital.  Don’t let amnesia claim it.