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"Rich People Problems": Diversity and the College Admissions Game

By now, most people reading this blog have had the opportunity to be rubbed the wrong way by high school senior Suzy Lee Weiss' "satirical" (read: annoying) op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. For anyone who missed it, Weiss didn't get into any of her top choice colleges. Thus, in a litany of complaints about the injustice of the whole college application process, she implicitly blames her rejection on Affirmative Action admission, claiming that she'd have gladly worn a "headdress" if it had helped her chances, come out of any closet available to her, or spent an afternoon with "Kinto," and now assumes her problem stems from the fact that she brings "as much diversity as a saltine cracker."

When I read this article, I rolled my eyes--not only because of her insensitivity or whiny sense of entitlement, but because her implication that a minority candidate who is less deserving than she is would be given her rightful spot on that basis alone--and her assumption that such a candidate would even be vying for that spot to begin with. Let me explain: While I teach sophomores this year, in previous years I have taught seniors, and every year--this one included--I spend a fair amount of time helping these guys with their college essays and applications (and writing recommendations!) during my tutoring period three days a week. One of the issues I've noticed with the students in our inner-city public high school is that the range of schools to which they apply is fairly limited; to put it another way, most colleges (including all the ones from which Weiss was rejected) are really not on their radar.

Everyone loves the narrative of a poor minority student from an inner-city school who triumphs over all manner of obstacles and ends up at the Ivy League. But the reality is that this doesn't happen nearly as often as we'd like, and that isn't due to the kids' abilities as much as it is to the kids' reluctance to apply outside of a certain geographic range of schools. For instance, guidance counselors and teacher will suggest different SUNY schools (of which there are many good ones, particularly in upstate New York) or small private colleges only to be told by the kids that they are "too far" from the city; one teacher in our school was in contact with a dean of admissions at a good public university in the Midwest, who begged through him to have some of our students apply there in order for the school to get some geographic diversity, promising major scholarships--but no kids took him up on it.

For the most part, our kids only apply to CUNY schools--that is, ones directly in the city--and a few 2nd or 3rd tier private colleges in the city suburbs, which tend to offer them scholarships. (To be clear, there is nothing wrong with CUNY schools; we just want the kids to consider a broader range of options.) The reasons the kids give for wanting to stay close to home are understandable (if frustrating, in their missing of opportunities): family responsibilities, lack of money for dorms (though some of them could surely get this sponsored through scholarships if they applied), and a general fear of loneliness the further they get form home.

To be sure, I don't think this problem is unique to our students, nor to minorities; studies show that poor white kids from states in the South and Midwest have similar issues, both in their lack of exposure to top schools and their logistical inability to attend them, such that they are also under-represented at Ivy Leagues and peer institutions. The resulting trend is that, at top schools like the ones Weiss applied to, ethnic diversity is superficial, and economic diversity is almost non-existent. Poor kids--black, white, Latino, Native American--of all levels of academic qualification are simply not applying in large enough numbers to the top colleges, and Suzy Lee Weiss' whining about diversity from her affluent Pittsburgh-area neighborhood seems especially churlish, when considering the boundless range of educational opportunities she has at her fingertips.

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