my first op-ed in a student paper…

So for the first time in my life I have written an “op-ed.” It was an interesting experience, and one quite different from blogging. I decided to write on inequality and elite education (which is pretty much what I’ve been working on the last year — the book will be out some time around the end of this year). I’m not sure why I fell into a more journalistic mode of constructing a story (starting with an “event” and using it to elaborate a set of disconnected points). But I did. One of my concerns was that the editorial would read like an attack on students at Columbia (“you’re rich and that’s why you’re here, so don’t think you’re so smart…”). 

The trick is that that is a major part of the explanation. But to get in kids have to work very hard. Squaring these two narratives — you’re here because you’re rich and you’re here because you worked hard — is tough. To say to a rich student, “yes, but what if everyone had the opportunities you did?” does not address it. In part because in their reference groups, they likely did. So most of my students out-worked and out-talented (awk, I know) most of their peers. For them to believe in their position as meritocratic is not, from their perspective, foolish.

So instead I tried to make this a story of the institution. While students might have a tough time seeing the biases applied to them, I thought if I pointed out just how wealthy our institution is, they might see the kinds of things I worry about. My favorite part of what I wrote is:

“Why do about half our students come from among the richest 5 percent of Americans? Are rich people just smarter?

They’re not. The difference between rich and poor is quite simple: The rich have more money, and they can use that money to buy advantages for their children (my own life fits this story).”

It reminds me of the preface to Elliot Liebow’s book, “Tell Them Who I am”:

“People are homeless not because they are mentally ill, drug users, or thieves, but because they do not have a place to live…”

17 thoughts on “my first op-ed in a student paper…”

  1. shamus, thanks for doing this. i think this argument is one of the hardest ones to make to privileged students & i appreciate the insight that that’s in part because things look meritocratic from their perspective. i also appreciate your laudably calm & thorough response to the name-caller in comments over there.


  2. Hi, Shamus, my class discussed your book chapters last week, they went over quite well, especially after Lareau. The arguments the way you pose them here (and to a lesser extent in the editorial) are perhaps excessively simplistic. I could as well say “People got low grades in calculus not because they don’t know math but because they did not know the answers to the test questions.” It still begs the question of WHY the outcome. The mechanisms whereby privileged people use their privilege to buy advantage in the educational system are perhaps different from the mechanisms “causing” homelessness. For homelessness, there ARE people who are mentally ill etc., but the question is whether there are cheap flophouses or other housing for the incompetent available or not. And the structural “causes” of family homelessness are different from the structural causes of alcoholics’ homelessness.

    For private schools & colleges, I’d start by pointing to the financial reality: a substantial fraction of the student body has to pay the full sticker price to make the books balance. To maintain both financial solvency and credibility among the elite as an elite school, a substantial majority of students have to be elite in origin as well as ability.

    There’s a pretty longstanding tradition in sociology (which I’m scrambling fast to try to pull together for a lecture — references appreciated oh scatterlings as my “general sociology” days were way long ago) of arguing that creating avenues of mobility is an important part of ensuring the stability of a hierarchy.

    For elite students, it is true that hard working elites do better in the competition for slots at “top” schools, while lazy elites end up at lesser prestige places, so the perception of meritocracy among the elite is roughly correct. (Which is what you said.) It just ignores the factors that give the elites a head start relative to non-elites in the same competition. I’ve got some ideas of how to make pictures to illustrate these ideas.


  3. OW: I’m curious to hear more about the class. There is still a tiny bit of time to make some changes if need be (like one week!).

    As for the reply, I actually learned this from you, OW. Not the substantive claims. But instead the importance of being level-headed when dealing with issues, even those that make you uncomfortable or even angry. I’m getting better at it. Not inter-personally as much. But at least in written form. I often try to channel your leadership style!

    I think of this less in reply to the people who write in — folks who I suspect have little interest in my response. But instead for students who might read the piece. We are so bombarded with heightened “gotcha!” rhetoric (think MSNBC or FoxNews) that it has become almost a default response. So I tried to take it as a teaching moment for students.


    1. Re the class, send me email. I could read you their comments over the phone & talk about it. They really resonated with a lot of it. FYI there are a fair number of typos still in the MS we read.


  4. Kudos on your willingness to write this editorial and engage so successfully with the comments! You did a great job explaining the family structure link. And thanks for the reference to my paper with Sara :)


  5. Great job doing public sociology! I like OW’s observation of the financial reality of elite colleges and think this is an important point to make to demystify things. Elite colleges would like people to think that they are elite and so well endowed because they produce such brilliance, but that’s not the whole story–really, they are seeking out elite clientele because they need the money to have a wealthy school. What elite clientele want has changed over time–academic rigor is more valued now. Princeton used to be much more of a party school for the rich (rich men, that is–well, rich white Protestant men, that is) than it is today.

    Rutgers is trying to address this with a program that they claim is unique to the nation:

    200 students a year, about one million people in poverty in NJ…

    Rutgers’ endowment is 500 million (with 54,600 students that’s about 9k/student). Princeton’s is 16.3 billion (with 7,500 students, that’s over 2 million per student). Admittedly, Rutgers is a state school, but still–what is Princeton doing to level the playing field? Or, do they want to? Does their whole model depend on having a fairly small elite that they can cater to? When I imagine someone posing this to the trustees, I can hear questions about not tarnishing the brand by guaranteeing admission to the riff raff–we want the most elite students every year.

    So, thinking like this at an elite school might not be good for your career.


  6. I would add a further point to your argument. It seems to be making a contrast between minorities and class (I know this was probably not your intention, just saying how it reads). But the point is that having class-based policies would also benefit African Americans, since they are disproportionately poor, and the content of racism is still associated with images of African American poverty. So policies to increase minority participation that helps lower-class minorities (maybe giving opportunities to poor or lower-middle-class whites while doing so) would be ideal, and might create potential for cross-race, intra-class alliances among the less advantaged.


    1. This is a very welcome amendment. Indeed, William Bowen and his colleagues have noted, “the minority enrollment gap [in four year colleges] is primarily a result of the fact that underrepresented minority students are more likely than other students to come from low-income families.” Bowen et al., Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education, pp. 76.

      As for the alliances, that’s an implication I hadn’t considered. I wonder if poorer whites would argue against affirmative action for Blacks as class based policies were “enough fairness.”

      Interestingly, Tom Espenshade does not really agree with Bowen et al. In work with Alexandria Radford, Espenshade and Radford argue that class based policies are not enough (at elite schools) and would reduce the overall minority enrollment. Their book is worth looking at:


      1. Bowen and Bok do make the argument that purely class-based policies would exclude racial minorities. Although systems like Texas do include minorities, although it relies on extreme segregation for that. But there’s also some research that shows how elite universities shifted over time from recruiting lower-class minorities to recruiting more and more relatively priviledged minorities (although usually not as much as white they admit, so the gap still remails). There’s a guy at Berkeley who studied this trend since the seventies, where universities started selecting wealthier minorities over time. And there’s the whole discussion of whether second-generation children of relatively advantaged immigrants aren’t taking the spots that were supposed to be for U.S. disadvantaged minorities (or children of disadvantaged minority immigrants). So the point is not whether to have race or class, but that racial criteria aren’t enough, they should be combined with class ones.


  7. OW: i haven’t heard about this argument that “creating avenues of mobility is an important part of ensuring the stability of a hierarchy” – but i would LOVE to see the refs if you get any. email me or a new post? thanks!!


      1. Thanks for fielding that one for me, Shamus! (As he and I discussed, it has been a LONG TIME since I read the “classics,” much less taught them.)


  8. I think somwhere in there is missing a discussion of the purpose of elite colleges. Maybe I’m a cynical and embittered, but you need to convince me that an elite college education is necessarily a good.

    The cold war is over and perhaps the purpose of our elite colleges has returned to the task of socializing our elites.


  9. I’ve been interested a lot of late in how folk make sense of the inequalities in our system and how we all arrived where we are. Your editorial is a noble attempt to challenge some assumptions (and some privilege) in that respect.

    I’ve long been fond of the NYT special edition on “How Class Works”- and there are some data there that speak to some of what you are getting at here. Namely, when one follows the link below, then to the “A Nationwide Poll” tab, then to the “What it takes to get ahead..” link on the left, something interesting is revealed.

    How Class Works

    While the value of education and hard work seems to be fairly evenly distributed across income categories, those making over $150,000 a year are the least likely to agree that intergenerational wealth transmission or social connections have any impact on how one gets ahead in life. Also, They are the most likely to attribute success to “Natural Ability”.

    While we do not have (quickly accessible) corresponding data for suppositions about how or why one does poorly, we can imagine similar patterns of attribution. Those with power and privilege see primarily individual agency more than others. Interesting.


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