Saturday, August 21, 2010

More on rural whites and elite college admissions

Last month, I blogged here about Ross Douthat's column, "The Roots of White Anxiety," in which he reported on what he saw as bias in elite college admissions against those from Republican/red states, as well as rural kids who may or may not be from those states. Wanting to know more about the Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford book upon which Douthat based his column, I ordered No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admissions and Campus Life. Before it arrived, however, this response from Thomas Espenshade appeared in the New York Times. Espenshade responds to Douthat's assertion that rural, Republican and/or red state applicants are disadvantaged when they apply to elite colleges. He explains:
We find that applicants who demonstrate a strong commitment to career-oriented extracurricular activities while in high school have a slightly lower chance of being admitted to a top school. This outcome affects only students who have won awards or assumed leadership positions in these activities, not those known for their extensive involvement. These extracurriculars might include 4-H clubs or Future Fa[r]mers of America, as Douthat mentions, but they could also include junior ROTC, co-op work programs, and many other types of career-oriented endeavors. Participating in these activities does not necessarily mean that applicants come from rural backgrounds. The weak negative association with admission chances could just as well suggest that these students are somewhat ambivalent about their academic futures.
So Espenshade disputes that rural kids are disadvantaged, attributing any bias to an apparent career-orientation among those who participate in activities like FFA and junior ROTC.

What Espenshade and elite college admissions officers appear not to know is that many rural schools don't have extracurricular activities other than FFA, 4-H, junior ROTC and similar activities that they characterize as "career oriented." At least this was the case at my high school in rural Arkansas. Well, we also had chapters of Future Homemakers of America and Future Business Leaders of America, but leadership in the former certainly doesn't sound academic, and the latter involved learning to type and take short-hand--not invest a stock portfolio--so I don't think that would do the trick either. This leaves me wondering--if being a leader and winning awards in these organizations makes students seem less desirable rather than more so, what are rural students with only these opportunities supposed to do if they aspire to attend such a college?

Similarly depressing is the fact that working part-time was off putting to elite college admissions officers. Yet again, this is just the sort of thing that rural and/or working-class students are likely to do. Their families may not have the luxury to encourage them to focus on academic pursuits such as advanced placement classes--which may not be available at their schools in any event.

Espenshade goes on to assert that "Red state" applicants are arguably at an advantage in the application process, noting that students from Utah are 45 times more likely to be admitted to an elite college than similarly situated applicants from California; applicants from Montana or West Virginia are 25 times more likely to be admitted and those from Alabama 10 times more likely. He continues: "On the other hand, coming from such “Blue” states as Virginia or Colorado lowers the odds of admission." Funny, I thought Virginia and Colorado were swing/purple states, but never mind.

To this, Douthat responds:
There are upscale Bobo enclaves even in states that we think of as rural and “red,” and it’s perfectly possible for an elite school to boost its geographic diversity by admitting Alabamans who attended Indian Springs School or Kansans who went to Pembroke Hill (both of which showed up on Worth Magazine’s list of the top 100 feeder schools for elite university), without actually gaining anything much in the way of socioeconomic diversity along the way.
I agree with Douthat that admitting students from Alabama and Kansas--and even Montana and West Virginia and Utah--is not tantamount to admitting rural students, and it guarantees neither socioeconomic diversity nor true geographic diversity. While these states are perceived as rural in our popular consciousness--and while rural culture may persist to some degree even in urban parts of these states--those being admitted from these states are likely economically privileged and from metropolitan areas, especially if they are white. (One of the overall headlines from the Espenshade-Radford study is that elite colleges tend to opt for a two-for-one model to achieve diversity. That is, to the extent they seek socioeconomic diversity, they do so with students of color who are seen as bringing diversity on two fronts; socioeconomically disadvantaged white students tend to be lose out in this process).

All this makes it seem that elite college admissions offices don't see and value rural students--especially rural white students--for who they are, the diversity they represent, and the leadership and promise they have exhibited.

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