While I have not yet read the study on which Douthat bases his column, it appears to be a highly credible one. Two Princeton sociologists, Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford, studied admissions and affirmative action at eight highly selective colleges, and they published their findings in No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admissions and Campus Life.
Douthat highlights several findings from the study, including that "[a]n upper-middle-class white applicant was three times more likely to be admitted than a lower-class white with similar qualifications." Douthat notes that outcomes are just the opposite for minority applicants, who are significantly more likely to be admitted if they are from families lower on the socioeconomic ladder. Douthat reports that Espenshade and Radford observe that "these institutions, conscious of their mandate to be multiethnic, may reserve their financial aid dollars 'for students who will help them look good on their numbers of minority students,' leaving little room to admit financially strapped whites."
But Douthat also suggests cultural bias against rural people, interests, and culture. In what Douthat calls one of the study's "most remarkable findings," Espenshade and Radford found that "while most extracurricular activities increase your odds of admission to an elite school, holding a leadership role or winning awards in organizations like high school R.O.T.C., 4-H clubs and Future Farmers of America actually works against your chances."
Douthat continues: "Consciously or unconsciously, the gatekeepers of elite education seem to incline against candidates who seem too stereotypically rural or right-wing or 'Red America.'” This is not the only place in the piece where Douthat collapses rural with right-wing and Republican, and I don't endorse that collapse, though I have previously noted the increasing popular alignment of the rural-urban axis with the opposing sides in the culture wars. Read more here.
Of the "cultural divide" (whether real or perceived), Douthat calls it "a problem admissions officers at top-tier colleges might want to keep in mind when they’re assembling their freshman classes." He concludes:
Douthat's column, "The Roots of White Anxiety," has been the most emailed story on nytimes.com for more than 24 hours.
If such universities are trying to create an elite as diverse as the nation it inhabits, they should remember that there’s more to diversity than skin color — and that both their school and their country might be better off if they admitted a few more R.O.T.C. cadets, and a few more aspiring farmers.