Monday, January 28, 2013

Rural kids as part of the "great migration"? what great migration?

David Brooks column in the NYT a few days ago, "The Great Migration," is--in Brooks's own words-- about "the race between meritocracy and government."  Brooks advocates meritocracy, which he implicitly acknowledges increases inequality, but which he sees a having considerable upsides.  "On the other side," Brooks asserts, "there is President Obama’s team of progressives, who are trying to mitigate inequality."

Yes, oddly, Brooks sees meritocracy as being at odds with a reduction in inequality.  But his articulated dichotomy relies on an unusually naive definition of meritocracy.

Regarding "meritocracy," Brooks explains:
First, there is our system of higher education, which is like a giant vacuum cleaner that sucks up some of the smartest people from across the country and concentrates them in a few privileged places. 
Smart high school students from rural Nebraska, small-town Ohio and urban Newark get to go to good universities.
Brooks continues in a way that builds his arguments that smart people gravitate to smart places, and if they came from places that aren't so "smart," as measured by the lack of social capital, with a focus on education and degrees, then they aren't likely to go back:
In the dorms, classrooms, summer internships and early jobs [these smart students, now in college]  learn how to behave the way successful people do in the highly educated hubs. There’s no economic reason to return home, and maybe it’s not even socially possible anymore.
This is what Brooks sees as the success, if you will, of what he calls "meritocracy." He goes on to say that both of the Obamas and most in their administration are beneficiaries of this system, along with  "many people who read this newspaper and many of us who write for it."  (That latter assertion is, I would say, supported by columns like this, which seem to assume that most high school students have the world at their feet when it comes to choosing a college; Bruni seems completely unaware of the elitism that permeates this presumption when less than a third of those in the U.S. above age 25 have even a bachelor's degree, let alone one from a selective institution like those he discusse).

But I am not so sure that Brooks has his facts right.  First, I don't know that our system of higher education takes in the "smartest people from across the country."  Admittedly, Brooks hedges his bets here by saying "some of the smartest people."  Yes, the elit(ist) education system takes in some smart people, alright, but given the proliferation of legacy admits and the well documented link between wealth and higher education access in this country, I am not persuaded.  Indeed, based on a 2003 study by Carnevale and Rose, the Economic Policy Institute released a graph showing that 74% of those from the top income quartile attend top universities, while just 3% of those from the bottom income quartile do so.  See similar analysis by the NYT here.

Indeed, Bowles and Gentis found in a study published in 2002 that "parental wealth and income are strong predictors of the likely economic status of next generation" but that "IQ is not a major contributor."  You are starting to see why I doubt that the "smartest people" really are populating "good universities."   

Yet Brooks insists that these processes he calls meritocracy and migration "work."  What he overlooks is that they work for the privileged few because most of those who attend these "good universities" were destined to be there.  They are not there because they are smart--or at least not merely because they are smart.  For them, being at a "good university" is a matter of birthright.  For the few other lucky ones--the ones who really are migrating from somewhere else (literally/geographically, or up the class hierarchy) to be part of this elite milieu, some "learn how to behave the way successful people do in the highly educated hubs."  Others do not, as Jason DeParle documented in this Dec. 2012 story.

Second and as  related matter, I also am not convinced by Brooks's assertion that smart high school students from rural places get to "good universities," as he defines them.  Le me be clear that I think the University of Nebraska (to continue his use of Nebraska to represent "rural") is a very fine university, but Brooks later makes clear that he is talking about the "smartest people" getting into really good schools.  I assume he means Ivy League institutions, the so-called little Ivies, and the handful of elite schools out here on the West coast.  (He uses the Obamas as examples of this phenomenon, and collectively they went to Occidental, Columbia, Princeton and Harvard, as he notes.) The premier recent study on elite college admissions, however, suggests that rural kids don't often get to these universities--at least not those kids I consider rural.  That is, if "rural" kids get in, they are probably already privileged, e.g., the kids of the local physician, or of a college professor or otherwise well educated parents in a high-amenity nonmetropolitan community.  In short, they are among the predestined, if also nominally "rural."

Princeton sociologists Thomas Espenshade and Alexandra Radford in their 2009 book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal, found that high school students who worked part time or participated in ROTC, FFA, 4-H, and other similar activities caused them to be seen as "careerist" by elite college admissions officers.  Such activities diminished the students changes of admission to elite colleges and universities.  Gone, it seems, are the days when holding down a job while performing well in school made you look industrious--and therefore virtuous.  Also gone, apparently, are the days when elite college admissions officers had any inkling of how the other half--make that the other 90%--lives.  Not only do these college admissions officers not appreciate industry, they don't seem to know that kids attending rural high schools don't have available them to a vast array of extracurricular activities available to the metropolitan teenager.  Read more commentary on Espenshade and Radford's book here, with links embedded.

Do rural high school students go places?  of course.  Some will get college degrees, though very few from elite universities.  Will some return home afterwards?  Will some remain part of the rural brain drain?  The answers to both questions is "yes."  But precious few, if any, will make it into the highest echelons of government.  Robert Byrd did it in his generation.  Tom Daschle did it in his.  But who in Congress or the Obama administration represents rural interests--or working-class interests--from a first-hand perspective now?  Who will do it in the next generation?  (By "first-hand" I mean it is not enough to be able to say that one's grand parents grew up poor during the great Depression or lived through the dust bowl).

Third, while I agree with Brooks that the Obamas are beneficiaries of this meritocracy, I disagree that the majority of those in their administration are.  Indeed, as I wrote here, the Barack and Michelle Obama are about the only two people you can find in their administration who are not silver spoon babies.  The others were predestined, as a Yale alum once told me, to become the leaders of the free world.

Meritocracy?  Hogwash!  What the Obama administration is seeking to do (I hope!) is diminish social inequalities so that real meritocracy--a truly level playing field--can flourish.

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