Universities unwittingly cater to wealthy

by By Robert

The recent attempts to abolish affirmative action in college admissions in California seems on the surface to be a fair and objective means of allocating public resources. But beneath the surface is a bias favoring the children of wealthier classes.
There is little doubt that higher education favors the upper part of our social class structure.
University of California educator Alexander Astin, quoted in the 1985 “Achieving Academic Excellence,” notes: “Students from the more affluent and better-educated families tend to be disproportionately represented in institutions at the top of the hierarchy (i.e., universities), while students from poor and less-educated families tend to be concentrated in institutions at the bottom (i.e., community colleges). … It seems clear that opportunities, in terms of institutional reputation and resources, are not equitably distributed among students of different social classes. Clearly upper-class students have access to ‘better’ opportunities. … Why this strong association between socioeconomic class and hierarchical position?
“The explanation would seem to lie in the close relationship between social class, on the one hand and high school grades and admission test scores on the other. … Given students of comparable academic preparation and ability, those from better-educated and more affluent families are more likely to enroll in highly selective colleges than are those from poorer and less-educated families.”
Tom Hayden (serving as chairman of the California Legislature’s higher education subcommittee) has noted that the state’s master plan for higher education assumes “that higher education is most efficient when students are separated on the basis of their academic ability,” and that the “‘best’ students should receive the best education.”
Accordingly, students attending the University of California get approximately two-and-a-half times the amount of funds-per-capita than students attending community colleges. Hayden notes in “Beyond the Master Plan” that the master plan, “roughly parallels the social structure of California, with lower-income and minority students tending to enroll most heavily in the community colleges.”
A simplistic explanation for the disparity among social classes in educational achievement is the idea that the cream rises to the top. That was the theme of Hernstein and Murray’s “The Bell Curve,” and was the reason why it received so much attention.
It was an attempt to prove that the upper social classes deserve their leadership roles.
The problem with this simplistic explanation is that it denies the role of culture in determining IQ (and hence educational ability). Recently, the Chronicle of Higher Education included a full-page article on the “Flynn effect,” named after its discoverer, James R. Flynn, professor at the University of Otago in New Zealand. The Flynn effect is the fact that IQ levels have risen dramatically in recent years in nearly all advanced countries.
“Using current standards, the average score in the United States on IQ tests has risen 24 points since 1918,” the report says. “In the Netherlands, the rise has been even faster: 20 points in the past 30 years. The average Englishman a century ago had an IQ score that might get him branded as mentally retarded today.”
The implications of the Flynn effect are that if someone is born in a lower economic status family their average or below-average IQ may be the product of their culture, not their genes. And if this is true, then the present educational system is discriminating against them culturally by favoring those born into classes whose cultures of affluence and power foster higher IQs. Even without this, the increasing length and expense of a college degree in recent years helps keep poor people out of professional careers. Thus, as University of Michigan social psychologists Daniel Katz and Robert Kahn note, the educational system may appear meritocratic but is actually a means of perpetuating and increasing social inequalities.
Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics, believed that the poor merit more public investment in their education because the rich already have the leisure time and resources with which to educate their children.
“It is otherwise with the common people,” Smith wrote in “The Wealth of Nations.” “They have little time to spare for education. Their parents can scarce afford to maintain them even in infancy. As soon as they are able to work, they must apply to some trade by which they can earn their subsistence. That trade is generally so simple and uniform as to give little exercise to the understanding; while, at the same time, their labor is both so constant and so severe, that it leaves them little leisure and less inclination to apply to or even think of anything else.”
Unfortunately, our current educational system favors the brighter students from better families. Even Hernstein and Murray admit that the results may not be socially desirable.
“Society has become very efficient at funneling the cognitive elite [into fast-track professional careers], thereby promoting three interlocking phenomena: 1. The cognitive elite is getting richer in an era when everybody else is having to struggle to stay even. 2. The cognitive elite is increasingly segregated physically from everyone else in both the workplace and the neighborhood. 3. The cognitive elite is increasingly likely to intermarry,” they wrote.
“Unchecked, these trends will lead the United States toward something resembling a caste society, with the underclass mired ever more firmly at the bottom and the cognitive elite ever more firmly anchored at the top, restructuring the rules of society so that it becomes harder and harder for them to lose.”
The current attempts to abolish affirmative action will not cure the system of its bias in favor of the well-off. Perhaps we should heed Smith’s advice: “The education of the common people requires, perhaps, in a civilized and commercial society, the attention of the public more than that of people of some rank and fortune.”
This piece originally ran in the Jan. 6 issue of the UCLA’s student newspaper, the Daily Bruin.