Misplaced White Anxiety and Misread Data?

In the week of Shirley Sherrod, you might have overlooked Monday's New York Times op-ed "The Roots of White Anxiety." Quoting the work of Princeton University sociologists Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford, columnist Ross Douthat writes, "The most underrepresented groups on elite campuses often aren't racial minorities; they're working class whites (and white Christians in particular) from conservative states and regions. Inevitably, the same underrepresentation persists in the elite professional ranks these campuses feed into: in law and philanthropy, finance and academia, the media and the arts."

Conservative and liberal writers have been debating Douthat's piece.

But, what no one seems to have done is to talk to the Princeton sociologists about their data, published last year in No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life. Does it actually find a bias against poor, rural, Christian whites? The study looked at student data from eight top-tier institutions in 1983, 1993, and 1997—a total of 245,000 records—and was further supplemented by a survey of more than 9,000 additional students. The aim was to examine how race and class affect the college-admission process.

"We didn't have a particular point of view and wanted to just be a mouthpiece for the data," said Espenshade, who told me that Douthat had "overreached" in his interpretation of the Princeton research. For instance, Espenshade takes issue with Douthat's claim that "While most extracurricular activities increase your odds of admission to an elite school, holding a leadership role or winning awards in organizations like high school R.O.T.C., 4-H clubs and Future Farmers of America actually works against your chances. Consciously or unconsciously, the gatekeepers of elite education seem to incline against candidates who seem too stereotypically rural or right-wing." Douthat cited Epsinshade's data in making the claim.

But Espenshade said, "We mentioned, as a relatively minor point in the book, that students who had participated in career-oriented extra-curricular activites—especially if they held a leadership role or won an award—had a slight decrease in their chances of admission to these elite colleges," Espenshade says. These activities, which also include co-op work programs and other nonspecific "rural" organizations, aren't cues to the admissions officers about race or politics. Instead, write the authors, success and high involvement in professional societies like 4-H, "suggest that students are somewhat undecided about their academic futures." "To equate that with a cultural bias against poor white Christians is a huge extrapolation beyond the realm of the data's reach," Espenshade told me.

And while Espenshade's data does conclude that the chances for admission improve for poorer black, Hispanic, and Asian-American students and decrease for poor white students, he doesn't believe this is a plot to deny poor whites an Ivy League education. "There aren't that many poor students applying to these schools," he explains. "The applicant pool itself tends to trend toward middle and upper-middle class. But all elite schools value diversity, both racial and socioeconomic, so maybe giving scarce finiancial aid dollars to poor black kids achieves two aims at once and they're already admitting a lot of white kids." Please note that Espenshade is not drawing a conclusion, only coming up with what could be a reasonable interpretation of the data—and there's a lot of data, little of which translates to easy answers or explanation: Espenshade's work also suggests that taking a SAT or ACT test prep course decreases your chances of admission to an Ivy school by at least 50 percent.

One of the pronounced advantages uncovered by the Princeton sociologists was for students applying from Montana, West Virginia, Utah, and Alabama—all safely red states and none lacking in poor white Christians, rural or otherwise. Espenshade interpreted that bit of data this way; "There aren't a lot of kids who apply from these states and colleges love to say, 'We have kids from all 50 states!' Geographical diversity is prized by these elite schools."

Of course, that's not the only diversity that either Douthat or I want to see more of on college campuses. But that's not the problem of too much race-based college admission, it's the problem of building a student body out of the thousands of qualified applicants. The only thing that remains constant in college admission in any given year is the fixed number of students in a freshman class and the amount of financial-aid dollars available. After that, any number of factors can go into the composition of a college class. Framing the competition for admission to these elite schools as a contest between poor white kids and poor black kids helps no one (except maybe rich kids of all colors).