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Some people buy a motorcycle. For the occasion of my own 25th college reunion, I’ve decided to speak my mind about the relationship between elite colleges and social inequality. For reasons I’ve outlined elsewhere, I believe this and global warming are my generation’s defining failures. I further believe that though elite colleges have a moral obligation to combat social inequality, they’re actually making the situation worse. A basic data point is stunning: According to The Crimson’s 2013 Freshman Survey, as many entering Harvard students come from families in the top one percent of earners as from the bottom 50 percent.
I’ve been working with a group of current Harvard students and recent graduates to create an alternative endowment that will hold contributions in escrow pending Harvard’s ending of legacy preferences, inquiry into ability to pay, and communication between the development and admissions offices. These steps wouldn’t be sufficient to cure inequity in higher education, but they would be a substantial step in the direction of fairness and equal access.
I’ve been heartened by the responses we’ve received as we’ve begun to make this case; I’ve personally received hundreds of emails from current and former students who feel ostracized and think that access to private colleges is fundamentally flawed. It’s clear, though, that a challenge we’ll face in making this argument is how to communicate the need for dramatic change without suggesting that individual legacies are to blame or expressing disrespect for the institution. I feel neither of these sentiments. To the contrary, I feel quite warmly about Harvard. I root for the basketball team and I’m always happy when I have the chance to walk in the Yard. At the same time, I think Harvard needs to do a lot more than it does, and I wish that reunions would have a focus on social justice. These messages seem perfectly consistent to me but I understand not to everyone. The irony is that Harvard’s homogeneity is at the root of these different worldviews.
It’s been my odd lot to spend half my life in a universe of privilege and the other in what I’ll call, for want of a better word, the real world. At John Jay College of Criminal Justice, I’ve taught many students who scored over 2100 on their SATs and easily could handle the work at Harvard. In 14 years, though, I’ve yet to meet a single one who said he or she applied to an Ivy League college. They simply don’t think it’s within their grasp. About half of my students come from families making less than $30,000 per year. Almost all of them work. About half work more than 20 hours per week. To them, it seems perfectly natural to say that elite colleges are rewarding in the name of merit qualities which are really the product of opportunity, and that there’s nothing personal whatsoever in making this argument.
At Harvard, where I taught undergraduate sections for three years during law school, I never met a single student who told me they worked full-time. I’m not making any judgment—I don’t want my children to work their way through school—I’m simply pointing out the gross disparity between the experiences of kids who attend elite and public colleges.
A consequence of this difference is that some privileged types allow themselves to be consoled by false claims, such as the idea that a majority of rejected Harvard applicants are incapable of handling the work or that the SAT measures ability to succeed in college. If one correctly rejects these premises, for example, you’re much less likely as to hear the statement “legacies don’t deserve special treatment” as a personal statement than as either a rejection of the concept of “desert” or a much broader conception of what makes one “deserving” of a place in college, which is what it’s intended to be.
Among the most fascinating parts of “The Price of Admission” by Daniel L. Golden ’78 are the stories told by the kids of wealthy donors to rationalize the preferential treatment that they received. Inevitably they conclude that they deserve their spot because they worked hard in high school, or because their parents earned their wealth, or because their network will be a contribution to the college. These are legitimate perspectives. My students would say that they are equally deserving of a spot because they too worked hard, and are capable of handling the work, and because their life experiences would be a substantial contribution to the college. These are also legitimate perspectives.
Of course, today we only treat the first of these perspectives as legitimate—not because of reasoned deliberation, but simply as an assertion of power and wealth in defense of the status quo. It’s impossible to imagine this persisting in a university with equal access and meaningful class diversity. In such a place, perspectives about the entitlement to wealth and privilege would be forced to compete with and accommodate perspectives on the innumerable life events and conditions that can inhibit a child from reaching his or her full potential. It would be a fraught, gut-wrenching, personal conversation drawing on many academic perspectives. As a teacher, it’s almost impossible to imagine something more exciting.
Evan J. Mandery ’89 is chair of the Criminal Justice Department at John Jay College.
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