Do Selective Colleges Favor the Rich and Work Against the American Dream?

Jun 30, 2020

Education plays a more important role in social mobility than ever in this country. But Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, argues that higher education is not doing enough to make the American dream possible for low-income students.

That’s the case he lays out in a new book “The Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America,” which he co-wrote with Peter Schmidt and Jeff Strohl. It argues that selective colleges primarily function as a way to “fast-track the elite to ever higher status,” and end up contributing to systemic racism in America.

What’s worse, he says that because people generally believe college admissions and achievement is largely merit-based, they feel less of an obligation to use what they learn in college to give back to the community that supported their success.

“And there is the race dimension to this that has only gotten worse,” Carnevale says. “White people lived in inner cities and worked in inner cities in the 1940s and ’50s. Black people moved into inner cities chasing decent manufacturing jobs during the war and after. But then the white people fled to the suburbs. They took the jobs with them. The jobs moved to the suburbs as well. They built strong tax bases and sent their kids to highly funded, very good K-12 schools. So when America changed in the ’80s, so that the next hurdle to gain access to the upper middle class was to go to college, the white population was ready. So we had a second white flight, not so much from downtown to the suburbs, but white flight to the BA,” the bachelor’s degree.

What can be done? Among the book’s suggestions is to end legacy admissions at selective colleges, require colleges that receive federal funds to admit a minimum percentage of low-income students, and enact free college for all programs with an idea of making 14 years of school the norm rather than 12.

Listen to this week’s episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player below.

The full conversation touches on the meaning of the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, the impact of the coronavirus on college admissions, and why institutional change is “so hard to come by.”


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