Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The forgotten voices of the rich and educationally advantaged

The following letter appeared on today's NYT letters page in response to a recent Times article about the lack of economic diversity at elite colleges and universities:
To the Editor:

David Leonhardt forgot about me. I grew up in suburban Pennsylvania and attended private school before Bryn Mawr College, the University of Pennsylvania and now the University of Oxford. And yes, my parents paid for it all.

I realize that not needing to work at 7-Eleven afforded me more time to study, read and learn. But I used it. Acceptance letters don't come because my parents foot the bill; kids like me get in because we are responsible, passionate and talented.

In theory, hard-working, low-income kids deserve help; in practice, their 1,250 SAT scores' counting for more than my 1,300 doesn't reflect meritocracy.

College admissions are a zero-sum game. Universities putting their "thumb on the scale" for a South Bronx applicant's 1,250 lessens the weight of my achievements. His 1,250's win is my loss.

Philadelphia, May 27, 2011

I'm willing to listen to arguments against certain forms of affirmative action, and I have some sympathy for those less advantaged white students who believe that "their spots" at a given college have gone to significantly less-qualified minority students. I think that belief is almost always unfounded, but I can still understand the aggrieved sense of exclusion felt by students from the struggling middle classes.

But this aggrieved sense of exclusion from someone who is wealthy and entitled is breathtaking. (And, seriously: a person with all her time, money, and alleged talent should do better than 1300 on the SAT--or at any rate score more than 50 points higher than a disadvantaged kid from the Bronx.)

Shorter Ms. Krems: people like her deserve all rather than most of the cookies.


Brian W. Ogilvie said...

I saw that this morning and, even allowing for the self-centered callowness of youth, I was dumbfounded. After all, the writer went to Bryn Mawr, Penn, and Oxford. Who turned her down--if anyone--and how has it affected her life chances at all? Sheesh.

A little secret for her (not that she'll read it here): there are far, far more young men and women who are "responsible, passionate and talented" than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Flavia said...


Her letter suggests to me that she's still bitter (almost ten years later--Google reveals that she was class of '06) about not getting into Princeton, or Columbia, or wherever her top undergrad choice was. Which is awfully sad in itself.

I'm troubled by the way so many people seem to regard SAT scores and even high school grades as an absolute measure of talent or potential. Frankly, the kids who get admitted to Elite College X with 1250 SAT scores--despite having attended crappy schools, working part-time, having uninvolved parents, etc.--are a much better bet for both college and life success than their peers from wealthy private schools, who got into the same elite college with 1400 SAT scores.

thefrogprincess said...

Flavia, I'm with you. There is so much wrong with this--and a real indictment of the education she sought out for herself that her thinking remains so shallow and lacks so much empathy--but my first thought is: that's all you could muster given your high point of privilege, a 1300? I graduated college in '05--I went to the fourth or fifth best public school in my city (still a damn good school), my mother was an immigrant with barely a high school education, my father a Vietnam vet. We were poor, and I still managed to score significantly higher than she did. That doesn't necessarily mean anything, except for the fact that my score was a byproduct of my mother's hard work preparing me for the SAT by checking out prep books from the library (couldn't afford even the public school SAT prep class). But since I'm black, I know folks like her feel like I took their spot.

My best friend growing up lived in another, much poorer, city than mine. She went to a school with chronic structural, teaching, and violence problems. She took the SAT having no clue as to the format, question types, etc., and still managed to score higher than many of my friends at our better institution. That has always spoke volumes to me: the true test is not if you can do pretty well with every advantage but if you can do even decently having to fight through obstacles the more privileged can't imagine.


Flavia said...


Shallow and lacking in empathy--exactly! If I were a Bryn Mawr grad I'd be terribly embarrassed right now, though I know such people exist everywhere.

I had the same feeling about her alleged SAT score. The 1300 rich kid/1250 poor kid example actually comes from the original NYT essay, as an instance of where it might be perfectly appropriate to put a thumb on the scale (50 points being such a minimal difference, esp. considering the major difference in economic and educational background). So it may not reflect Krems's actual score. However, she does use the possessive, and her thin skin about her talents and their lack of recognition make it hard for me to believe that she'd be seeming to lay claim to a score lower than her own.

My best friend in high school was African American, and I know lots of people think she only got into Stanford because she's black, because I heard them saying as much--including many who liked her personally. But she and I were the only ones in our class who got in (west coast h.s., so dozens applied), and her grades weren't perfect--she was and is the kind of person who put tons of effort into the things she loved, but didn't see the point in spending the same energy on the things she didn't.

Everyone knew she was smart and she had good SAT scores, but people just couldn't wrap their heads around the idea that a free-spirited black girl might actually be smarter, or more likely to contribute to a college's intellectual life, than the white kids with 4.0s who didn't get in. Or for that matter, the white kids with 3.8s. Or lower.

Withywindle said...

But she is correct--admissions are a zero-sum game, somebody else's gain is her loss, and it is not a meritocracy save by torturous redefinition of the word. I do not see why she should be censured or mocked because she complains, truly, that society's conception of distributive justice comes at her expense. For the other issues raised in comments: the virtues of a beneficiary of affirmative action must always be weighed against the virtues of those displaced, and the consideration of opportunity cost. As to the presumption of incompetence borne by all members of the privileged classes of affirmative action: it is inherent in the system, and will be disspelled only when the system is abolished.

Flavia said...


The mistake (or at least the first mistake) is in taking it personally. A specific someone else does not get "your" spot. There are lots of spots, and lots of criteria for admission.

There's also real dishonesty (not yours, necessarily, but in this line of argumentation) in the way that the person imagined as getting "your" spot tends to be imagined as a disadvantaged person--minority, lower-income, etc.--rather than, say, a legacy admit or an athletic admit, whose academic accomplishments or potential are often equally (or much more) questionable.

Is the number of admission spots finite? Yes, of course. But there isn't an ordered list out there somewhere that ranks every candidate's "merit" that colleges are either following or willfully violating in their admissions process. Partly that's because GPA and SAT scores may not tell the full story, even academically (some schools weight GPA by difficulty of the class and others don't)--but more importantly, GPA and SAT scores are not so much "accomplishments" on the part of 17- or 18-year-olds as indices of their potential for accomplishment at college and as adults.

Colleges don't really care about what you've done in your four years of high school, or every 4.0 would get in. Colleges care about what you're likely to do after you get in. That's not so much (re)distributive justice as it is about backing winning horses. Every college wants to be associated with the next generation of leaders--and poach them from another school, whether an equally elite one or a state school. And some of those leaders are not coming from the same places as the current leaders.

Susan said...

Everyone has said everything I would have said already, but I'm not sure what this poor person was excluded from.

Like you, I'm always intrigued at the reasons people adduce for their exclusion. I've seen this a lot when people say that a college "had" to hire a woman/minority/ whatever. In some ways, I think it makes it easier to accept rejection to say that it's not about merit. People don't want to assume that the person who got whatever they wanted was equally or differently qualified.

Even when I applied to college forty years ago, it was clear that the ivies could choose three different classes to admit, all of whom were qualified, with no overlap. And 50 points on the SAT is within the margin of error.

Withywindle said...

1. If you are not let in, why shouldn't you take it personally? Indeed, where the judgment is "holistic," it now is a judgment of you as a whole, and a personal reaction is now more justified, not less. If you know you are in a disfavored class, and someone else is in a favored class, why do you need to know the exact name of the person who bumped you? And since admissions offices wouldn't reveal such information about their deliberations, why is their obfuscation a reason for you not to feel resentment?

2. The colleges don't boast that they're doing good for society for the legacy admits or the athletic admits as much (at all?) the way they do for the affirmative action admits. Why not focus on the benefitted class where the benefits--and the losses taken by others--are boasted of as a feature, not a bug? We should mention here that affirmative action and athletic admits significantly overlap. As for whether legacies or athletic admits are equally or more questionable: doubtless, but athleticism is an actual skill, within the reach of all, and all races can acquire family connections. Rejection on the basis of skin color alone, you will be astonished to learn, rankles as those do not; rightfully so, I judge.

3. SATs are better predictors than anything else available for academic achievment. You seem to be referring to the procedures of elite private admissions offices, which are clearly designed to obscure matters to allow for the arbitary exercise of affirmative action (and indeed athletics, legacy, etc.); in the larger state schools, the numbers of grades, SATs, etc., are indeed the story, with athletic recruitment explicit, and affirmative action expressed as a numerical bump. At the elite level, the procedures are trying to obscure the fact that many (most) blacks and Hispanics are admitted with scores which no whites and Asians are admitted with. (Save, perhaps, your legacies and athletes.) "Potential for accomplishment" rings hollow in the circumstances.

4. Of course colleges care about what you've done in high school; it's the only available predictor for what you'll do in the future. If you are in the disfavored classes, competition now is such that a 4.0 is a prerequisite, not a guarantee. As for leadership, Timothy Burke at Easily Distracted just eviscerated that as a goal for colleges; to bring it in as a support for affirmative action (and it begs the question as to why leadership is to be found in particular racial distributions) seems merely another way to euphemize arbitrary discrimination.

Flavia said...


My point is that you not only can't know the exact name of the person who allegedly bumped you, but you don't know that you were bumped at all. Your assessment of your abilities (and of someone else's) is likely to be flawed. Generally, students do not see other students' full applications and have no way of assessing their academic and other strengths.

I'm not saying an 18-year-old is wrong to feel sad or disappointed (or even really pissed off) not to have gotten into his or her first-choice institution. But clinging to the belief that someone else "took" that spot from you is fallacious, mean-spirited, and--more importantly--a waste of your time, talent, and energy. Harvard doesn't owe you anything.

thefrogprincess said...

The other thing I'd add is that, at least ten years ago when I was applying for college, I don't know anybody who was white who was in the honors classes, who had a good GPA and a decent SAT score, who didn't get into a decent college--helped of course by the fact that the state I grew up in has one of the great state college systems. But besides that, the people at the top of my class, three of us--two white, me black--went to the same top 10 institution in the country. People don't get into Harvard, it's a fact of life. But I think you'll be hard-pressed to find a truly talented and smart white student not getting into a great school--whether they can afford to get there is another thing. And the evidence is once again right in the woman's letter--assuming she got around a 1300, she managed to get into bryn mawr, which seems right on to me. And again, like I said yesterday, the white students I went to high school with who got into great schools had scores well above that, including one 1600 who also didn't get into Harvard.

That's the other thing about this woman's letter. Why is it the poor 7-Eleven working student she blames who missed two more questions than she did? Why isn't she blaming the spate of 1600-earning students who filled up the ranks? Oh right, because to blame them would involve asking herself what she could have done differently.

Withywindle said...

You can assess your GPA, your SATs, your LSATs, what have you. Where these operate unclouded, you can perfectly well tell the effect of discrimination. In Grutter vs. Bollinger, the statistics showed racial discrimination to have overwhelming effect -- Similar effects are seen everywhere numbers are available to the public. It is true that a great many people are denied admission to educational institutions for reasons of race alone; and it is mean-spirited to lie to them about this truth, tell them to shut up when they complain about their injuries, or tell them the best use of their time, talent, and energy is to acquiesce in a system of bigotry. As to what Harvard owes its applicants--truth for one, but also, since they accept public monies, equal treatment of all citizens in matters of race. (As if often noted, Bob Jones is forbidden what Harvard blithely practices.) And indeed, even if the law does not require such equal treatment, common decency would call for the same.

thefrogprincess said...

Well if that's the case, explain to me why it's hard to find an elite college/university where the racial demographics equal the demographic breakdown of the country: i.e., find me the elite school where more than 12% of the student body is African American AND more than 16% of the student body is Hispanic and then we can talk about how white students are being disadvantaged and are being selected at rates lower than their proportion of the US population.

Withywindle said...

Doubtless none; surely you know this is irrelevant? What matters is admission relative to achievement. You would have endorsed the traditional discrimination against Jews, just so long as 2-3% of the student body remained Jewish? You would revive that discrimination, with the same proviso? And against Asians?

thefrogprincess said...

Well it's irrelevant to people who don't think it's important to wonder why the two largest minorities are so severely underrepresented in higher education. Or put another way: is it really okay for the two largest minorities in a country as supposedly great as the United States to have such limited access to education? The problem is that "achievement" isn't as objective a measure as you'd like to make it. The smartest students could all do amazingly if their schools were all air conditioned; if their teachers were all exceptional; if their schools were all safe; if they could spend all of their hours after school working on homework as opposed to earning money for the family; if they weren't taking care of siblings while parents were either working too hard to supply a basic meal or, conversely too caught up in their own problems to provide a safe, stable environment for their children; if they weren't more worried about dodging gunfire than with schoolwork.

It must be nice for folks like Ms. Krems to live in the world of where you just achieve because you've been privileged enough to have a child where achieving was the only task at hand. But that's not what the world's like, and a society that is willing to leave those who didn't have the benefits of wealth on the side of the road is a society that is a disgrace.

And, for what it's worth, this isn't just a race issue. Many of the same issues can be found among poor whites. But sadly, our politicians have played up race fears to their benefits, allowing entitled, rich white students to view black and latino students in college--many of whom have outachieved their white counterparts--with suspicion, and leaving white, impoverished students similarly out in the cold.

Withywindle said...

1) There are all sorts of possible reasons one can provide for low numbers of blacks and Hispanics in college, complimentary and uncomplimentary; all of them irrelevant to the question of individual achievement and capacity.

2) The question is not one of "access to education", a highly euphemistic phrase, but, again, of individual achievement and capacity.

3) Is it really OK for the majority of Americans to be discriminated against in their applications to college and postgraduate education?

4) And maybe bad students would do better if they studied harder. ("Soft bigotry of low expectations.") But it doesn't matter why you're illiterate; if you're illiterate, you shouldn't be in college. And if you're mediocre, you shouldn't be in an elite college.

5) A society that insitutionalizes bigotry via affirmative action is a disgrace.

6) "The world" is as much Ms. Krems' as anyone else's.

7) There's a moral argument to be made for tax money to provide decent and rigorous primary, secondary, and vocational training for all citizens. A moral argument to be let into college when illiterate, or elite college when mediocre? Not so much.

8)The political cast is largely that of rich whites favoring affirmative action, since they will do well enough to be let in anyway, while poor whites on the academic margins get shafted. A greater sensitivity to the plight of poor whites argues against affirmative action, not for it.

Bardiac said...

It must be tough to be so privileged that this is all Ms. Krems worries about.

When did whites become a "disadvantaged" group in the US?

I would guess that elite schools, like the less than elite schools I'm familiar with, try to balance their entering classes in ways that seem best to them. A great bassoon player gets in with lower grades than an equally great flute player, probably. You do something different and interesting, or have something different and interesting to offer, then schools are more interested. At least, that's how it works here in public university land.

thefrogprincess said...

This is the last I have to say on the issue, but, Withywindle, your reference to illiteracy has revealed your hand. Your view apparently is that those who get into college based on slightly lower test scores must be mediocre and/or illiterate.

What I'm saying is that there are reasons why smart students get lower test scores that justify an admissions approach that considers more than those scores. Moreover, I'm hard-pressed to find students getting 1400+ (in the old system) who weren't getting into excellent schools.

Nobody's talking about illiterate students, and the fact that you went there says more about what you think about minority students' capabilities as a whole than it does about the issue at hand.

Flavia said...

Whoa, look what happened while I was out all afternoon!

Why is it the poor 7-Eleven working student she blames who missed two more questions than she did? Why isn't she blaming the spate of 1600-earning students who filled up the ranks? Oh right, because to blame them would involve asking herself what she could have done differently.

This is exactly my problem with her letter. Resentment is corrosive and self-defeating, and that's true even when one has suffered a genuine and serious injustice. I don't believe Ms. Krems actually has been wronged, but even if I thought she had more of a point than I do, I'd still be blown away by her fixation on events that occurred almost a decade ago--and that have not, in the end, apparently harmed her in any material way.

My post wasn't meant to defend specific admissions practices (to the extent that I know about them--as Withy notes, those at elite private schools are deliberately ofuscatory); I'm totally willing to accept that they need at least some reform. My post was aimed at the aggrieved attitude of the letter writer, who doesn't seem interested in changing the system so much as she seems interested in telling us how much she, personally, deserves, and how unfair it was that she--way back when--didn't get 100% of it.

Life isn't fair, and people at the top have problems and sorrows too. I would never suggest that people like us (because this is our class too, kids, whether we were born into it or not) aren't allowed to complain or feel sorry for ourselves just because most of the world has more serious problems. But for God's sake, eschew resentment. Succeed anyway, despite whatever injustices you think were done you. Be grateful for what you have, and fight for everything more you believe you deserve. Accept that you have agency in the world.

Withywindle said...

TFP: Ah'm agin the whole rainbow of illiteracy.

Flavia: She wrote a letter to the editor. If she mutters on the subject day and night, then sure, she should get a grip. But one letter doesn't indicate "fixation".

Marie said...

To give Ms. Krems some credit, her post was not about members of underrepresented minorities getting "her" place, it was about poor people (those who have to work at 7-11 while going to school) getting "her" place. But as someone who has served on many a graduate-program admissions committee, I would be a lot more interested in a grad applicant who earned a slightly less high GPA and a slightly lower GRE score than Ms. Krems did, all while working 20-40 hours a week. That's a person who can manage her or his time, an essential skill for success in graduate school and beyond. In other words, my decision to admit that candidate rather than (or in addition to) Ms. Krems would indeed represent the workings of a meritocracy. The merit is simply reflected in terms other than a test score.

the rebel lettriste said...

I just would like to point out that the fact that her parents "paid for it all" = THEY ARE RICH AS FUCK! And word, with all that money and "free" time to study, she shoulda had better scores than 1,300.

Historiann said...

I'm sorry I missed this when it was originally posted! (And yes, as a Bryn Mawr grad and a Penn Ph.D., I'm a little embarassed, but hey--there are jerks everywhere, right?)

What The Rebel Letter said: if her parents could just write the check, she should just build a bridge and GET OVER IT already. She undoubtedly got a thumb on the scale in favor of her admission to college by virtue of her parents' wealth. Sadly, BMC switched to need-aware admissions at least a decade ago, as opposed to their proudly need-blind admissions policy that operated when I was admitted in the 1980s, so the fact that her parents could just write the check was doubtlessly calculated into the college's decision to offer her admission. And how exactly is THAT meritocratic?

People who jump up and down about "fairness" and "meritocracy" in my experience aren't in favor of those values--they just want to continue gaming the system for themselves and their children.

PG said...

How did a letter decrying socioeconomic -- not racial -- affirmative action end up attracting Withywindle's complaints about race?

all races can acquire family connections

Mind... boggled. Really, being of a racial group that wasn't even allowed into a school when one's parents were going to college is not any setback to gaining legacy preference? Being of an ethnic origin that had strict quotas on its immigration to the U.S. until the late 1960s wouldn't affect that either? Let's at least consider the possibility that people of color were not admitted to many southern universities until our parents' generation might have some effect on "all races" being able to acquire family connection to attend institutions like my alma mater, which admitted its first black undergraduate in 1955.

Being the offspring of Asian immigrants, I possibly have been rejected "on the basis of skin color alone," as Asians are wildly over-represented in higher education and especially at elite schools. That "rankles" me far less than the family-based preferences that are just as much out of my control as my race is. My parents did everything they could think of to further my education, but it was not within their control to have immigrated to the U.S. in time to have attended college here.

in the larger state schools, the numbers of grades, SATs, etc., are indeed the story, with athletic recruitment explicit, and affirmative action expressed as a numerical bump

If you know of schools where this continues to be "the story," you should report them to the Civil Rights Division. After Grutter & Gratz (2003), a "numerical bump" for race is illegal because it has been deemed unconstitutional.

Is it really OK for the majority of Americans to be discriminated against in their applications to college and postgraduate education?

How is this relevant to the real world in which the majority of Americans never apply to a selective college, much less obtain postgraduate education? A fifth of my high school freshman class didn't even graduate with me.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Open comment to the original letter writer, who said: " like me get in because we are responsible, passionate and talented."

As if the hypothetical 1250-scorer was not.

As if it didn't take more dedication to hit those scores when you're also trying to hold down a job, or are dealing with a broken public school system, or have parents who didn't go to college.

As if that place was "yours" to begin with. It's not anybody's, by definition, until it is awarded. To say it is "yours" beforehand is the *literal* definition of entitlement.

And if you (letter-writer) feel bad about that 1250-scorer, just think how the 1400-scorer feels about you.

Anonymous said...

1420 here, old system, public school, no AP classes. Educated family though, well spoken, and I was good at math. I totally relate to that 1250 scorer but I am the 1400+ scorer laughing at Krems.

Oh and that 3d part they have now was experimental and I got 800 on it. So I am saying I'd be 2220 now, counting all three parts. Brag, brag, brag, I know, but I am not impressed with the 1300 an advantaged person had time to struggle for ... especially if they had to try so hard that it is etched into their brain like this.

Anonymous said...

Dear Ladies and Gents,

I'm the spoiled, entitled, misunderstood, etc. little woman who started this great war.

To clarify, some of you might want to go back and read the original article; the SAT scores used were the examples therein. If you can remember your actual scores this far out, more power to you.

I realize my letter upsets many of you, advantaged and disadvantaged alike. The original article upset me, and I wrote to the Times. I did not spill my comments into a likeminded community, where I could be sore with a bunch of other brilliant rich kids, and I did not take any bitter swipes as the less advantaged. You might be surprised to know that I returned both awarded and won grants because of my family's wealth. (Gasp! I’m not a monster?!) I received the awards -- as well as my slots at top universities -- because I was more intelligent, more motivated and more accomplished than the competition. Period. You may want to ask those who need more to round out or “explain” their grades/scores/etc. if they actually want that counted for them when it comes to surviving and excelling in a community that fails to reward that work after the first year. (See Raphaela Levy-Moore’s Letter in the same edition.)

Am I sorry that I didn't have to struggle while garnering my superior GPAs or actual SAT scores? No. Have I been maligned and envied for having money before and will I again, even as I pursue a career that is aimed at earning so very little of it? Yes. Should someone's personal struggle be allowed to explain his or her comparatively subpar performances? Sure. Am I or are you blog posters in charge of making these sweeping admissions policy decisions? No. (Though I will note that A. your back and forth about my personal achievements and my letter in a hardly diversely opinioned community does little to change anything whatsoever in the system you mean to be railing against and B. I was thanked by board members of my institutions for saying what so many are, as here, needlessly personally attacked simply for saying out loud.)

Mine is an opinion, and the notion of admissions being zero-sum is the truth. So whenever extraneous factors like economic background or race (rich/poor, white/other) gets a disproportionate thumb on the scale amongst the myriad measurements when it comes to college admissions, something is off. I believe people should be more troubled by the LACK of outcry from the community disadvantaged when the thumb is being placed on the scale for the rich and white than for desire to speak out and say my piece.

Best Wishes,
Jaimie Arona Krems