Beyond Race-Based Affirmative Action; Class and Missed Opportunity in Higher Education

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 5, 2004 | Go to article overview

Beyond Race-Based Affirmative Action; Class and Missed Opportunity in Higher Education


Byline: Nat Hentoff, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Many college commencement speeches are forgotten by the time the graduates and their parents have come home. This year, there was an exception that should be read by all high-school guidance counselors (particularly in schools with students of working-class and low-income families); college admissions officers; and parents who are not among the upper-middle-class.

At Amherst College in Massachusetts, the speaker was its president, Anthony Marx. It was both refreshing and yet troubling to hear him cut through the familiar arguments about race-based affirmative action. He underscored a fundamental inequality in access to colleges that affects so many of the young in all races and ethnic groups.

"At our top colleges," said Amherst's president, "only one-tenth of our students are drawn from the poorer half of the population [and] only 3 percent from the bottom quarter. Three-quarters of top college students come from the wealthiest quarter of society."

The result, Mr. Marx emphasized, is "a wall of blocked opportunity." This wall begins to take obstructive shape with inferior preparation for college in many schools with large proportions of the poorer half of the population.

And even elementary school kids who are bright, as I've seen while reporting on schools, are blocked when they move on. As Mr. Marx noted, "Among those students who are academically strong upon entering high school, the less wealthy among them (even if they do get into college) are two-and-a-half times less likely ever to earn a bachelor's degree." The cause is, once more, indifferent preparation in inferior high schools.

Forgotten entirely too often in academic and legislative reports on how to "reform" our educational system are those youngsters who may have the skills, but as Mr. Marx pointed out, "simply assume they cannot afford college ... Federal support that once covered almost all typical college costs now covers about half." He quotes Business Week: "[our] economy is slowly stratifying along class lines."

But the most unfortunate of children left behind are those who never think they have a chance of getting higher education. Not only do some high- school guidance counselors discourage them, but, says Mr. Marx, "less-wealthy parents of eighth graders expect their children to go to college half as often as the wealthy."

To further illuminate the class barriers to higher education, there is this telling fact about the beneficiaries of race-based affirmative action in "The Shape of the River" by William Bowen and Derek Bok. …

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