It’s the lying that gets me

So I was scanning the inter-tubes this morning, looking for interesting things about which to blog, when what should attract my eye but an article about Amherst.  Naturally, I stopped to read.

(Amherstorum hostis sunt.  Universitas Wesleiana illos semper vincit!)

Except it’s not really an article about Amherst, but an article about colleges — particularly colleges with excellent reputations — opening their doors to the huddled masses.  It’s essentially an opinion piece, with the main focus being a close look at someone with whom the author shares an opinion.  Anywhere, here’s the geist:

On Sunday, Mr. Marx presided over his final Amherst graduation. This summer, he will become head of the New York Public Library. And he can point to some impressive successes at Amherst.

More than 22 percent of students now receive federal Pell Grants (a rough approximation of how many are in the bottom half of the nation’s income distribution). In 2005, only 13 percent did.

* * * *

The United States no longer leads the world in educational attainment, partly because so few low-income students — and surprisingly few middle-income students — graduate from four-year colleges. Getting more of these students into the best colleges would make a difference. Many higher-income students would still graduate from college, even if they went to a less elite one. A more educated population, in turn, would probably lift economic growth.

The Amherst model does cost money. And it would be difficult to maintain if Congress cuts the Pell budget, as some members have proposed. But when you add everything up, I think the model isn’t only the fairest one and the right one for the economy. It’s also the best one for the colleges themselves. Attracting the best of the best — not just the best of the affluent — and letting them learn from one another is the whole point of a place like Amherst.

That’s a lovely sentiment, attracting the best of the best.  You could imagine a world where admissions decisions were purely merit-based.  We could even call it “Need Blind Admissions“.  And we could make it so that schools offer “full need” support.  What a great idea!  If only some school other than Amherst would do this…

Oh, wait.

  • Amherst College
  • Beloit College
  • Boston College
  • Bowdoin College
  • Brandeis University
  • Brown University
  • California Institute of Technology
  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • Claremont McKenna College
  • College of the Holy Cross
  • Columbia University
  • Cooper Union
  • Cornell University
  • Dartmouth College
  • Davidson College
  • Denison University
  • Duke University
  • Emory University
  • Georgetown University
  • Grinnell College
  • Hamilton College
  • Harvard University
  • Haverford College
  • Johns Hopkins University
  • Knox College
  • Lawrence University
  • MIT
  • Middlebury College
  • Northwestern University
  • Olin College
  • Pomona College
  • Princeton University
  • Rice University
  • Stanford University
  • Swarthmore College
  • University of Chicago
  • University of Miami
  • University of Notre Dame
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • University of Richmond
  • University of Rochester
  • University of Southern California
  • University of Virginia
  • Vassar College
  • Vanderbilt University
  • Wake Forest University
  • Wellesley College
  • Wesleyan University
  • Williams College
  • Yale University

That’s every Ivy, all three little Ivies, MIT, Stanford, Duke, Emory, most of the Claremonts (by enrollment), and a bunch of other prestigious universities and liberal arts college.  And a bunch of colleges that used to be need-blind but have had a rough economic time of it lately still do their level best.  The fact is, the best schools already know that they’re best-served, and that the nation is best-served, by being as meritocratic as they can afford.  They don’t need Leonhardt to tell them that.  Just look at the list of institutions that have answered Leonhardt’s call… before it was ever made:

No, what Leonhardt’s talking about is not need-blind admissions at elite universities, which we already have (and which he knows we have; he was down the river at Yale at the same time I was at Wesleyan, and they were both need-blind full-need schools at the time).  He’s talking about affirmative action for poor people.

Finally, Mr. Marx says Amherst does put a thumb on the scale to give poor students more credit for a given SAT score. Not everyone will love that policy. “Spots at these places are precious,” he notes. But I find it tough to argue that a 1,300 score for most graduates of Phillips Exeter Academy — or most children of Amherst alumni — is as impressive as a 1,250 for someone from McDowell County, W.Va., or the South Bronx.

Of course… this means that Amherst isn’t really “Need Blind” at all.  I’m tempted to go take them off the Need-Blind list at Wikipedia, citing the open confession of their university president.    And that’s what Leonhardt’s arguing for: he doesn’t want need-blind admissions, he wants need-conscious admissions: class-based affirmative action.

Which means this is a deliberate lie by implication:

But before we get to the details, I want to address a question that often comes up in this discussion:

Does more economic diversity necessarily mean lower admissions standards?

No, it does not.

Oh, sure, it’s technically true in the most attenuated, hyper-logical sense: you could have a theoretical university in some possible world where there was economic diversity without lower admissions standards.  It would require vast resources and tremendous effort, but it’s theoretically possible.  But that’s putting an awful lot of weight on the word “necessarily” in that sentence.  A better question would be, “Does the nuts-and-bolts of actually obtaining more economic diversity mean lower admissions standards?”  That’s the real question, and it’s a question that even Leonhardt seems to know can only be answered in the affirmative.

The argument is an old one that anyone who’s old enough to have been paying attention will know: “test scores out of poor schools don’t mean the same thing as test scores out of wealthier schools; the same ‘merit’ can be signaled by lower scores in a tougher environment.”  Just in case there was any doubt that this was the argument:

“Spots at these places are precious,” he notes. But I find it tough to argue that a 1,300 score for most graduates of Phillips Exeter Academy — or most children of Amherst alumni — is as impressive as a 1,250 for someone from McDowell County, W.Va., or the South Bronx.

That, too, is a lovely sentiment.  And it’s probably true if the “merit” that you’re trying to measure is some sort of absolute potential.  But the counterargument is a strong one, and runs thusly: college is a bit late to be relying on your potential.  College, particularly college at any of the schools on the list above, is going to draw upon your actual preparation as a foundation for more advanced studies.   If you don’t have that foundation, you’re going to fall behind because for all your magnificent potential, you just don’t read as well, or just don’t add as well, as the more prepared students with the higher test scores.

I’m not endorsing the counterargument, not full-heartedly, anyway.  I’m actually a supporter of class-based affirmative action, though I tend to think it’s better in a thinner, almost ceteris paribus sort of sense.  (I’m OK with the finger on the scale, but don’t push too hard.  And if that makes me a man of weak principles, well, then I suppose I’m a man of weak principles and a gut sympathy for the poor, scrappy kid who gets into a place like Wesleyan and makes good.  Sue me.)

But what you shouldn’t do is pretend that you can lower admissions standards without lowering admissions standards.  That’s just dishonest.

Update: Edited for Latin grammar; I had a subject-verb agreement problem that is now fixed.  -M


  1. An excellent, provocative essay.

    I am also in favor of transparency, though perhaps more open to 2 fingers on the scale for class-based AA, rather than 1.

    I’d also be curious if a 50-point SAT spread is the norm. I.e., do the Amherst AA admits tend to trail by 50 points, or more?

  2. Hi Michael,

    I’m a regular reader of this blog. I can’t tell from this post if you attended Wesleyan or taught there, but I went there. I’m fairly certain you will find lots of holes in it, but what the heck: A few months ago I wrote a critical post about admissions access there as well as at other highly selective colleges:

    If you decide to read the post, please read the comments, too, as well as a follow-up post: as my thinking on the subject evolved.

    Thanks. Hope this isn’t in poor form.

  3. Need blind does not actually mean that admissions decisions are purely based on merit, it simply means that being poor won’t get you rejected out of hand. Many of the schools on your list give preferential treatment to the children of legacies and/or children whose parents contribute financially as donors. That is effectively affirmative action for the wealthy or connected.

    There’s also a point in the article that many colleges look for the kinds of activities that are hard to indulge in if you’re poor (volunteer trips abroad, etc.). I can’t speak to Amherst’s specific changes, but I think it’s easy to make the argument that you can admit more poor kids by *raising* standards by eliminating legacy admissions and valuing extra-curriculars — including work — beyond the usual range of upper middle class ones that universities currently prize.

  4. Michael E. Lopez says:


    I went to Wesleyan; I was a year behind you (’96). You were in the same class as my girlfriend and several others of my acquaintance.

    I look forward to reading your stuff!


  5. But I find it tough to argue that a 1,300 score for most graduates of Phillips Exeter Academy — or most children of Amherst alumni — is as impressive as a 1,250 for someone from McDowell County, W.Va., or the South Bronx.

    There are a fair number of kids getting 1250 from West Virginia. Almost none from the Bronx. But let’s face it–he’s not accepting kids with a score of 1250 from the Bronx. No one would object to that. He’s accepting kids who can’t break 1000.

  6. Sean Mays says:

    The finger on the scale isn’t 50 points. Some research indicates we’re talking about hundreds of points. The absolute spread in racial groups might be around 400 points if you believe this link …

    Some post-Bakke v California comes to mind. I read an article where UC Berkeley was trying to argue that despite having vastly lower GPA’s and LSAT’s there was no statistically significant difference in outcomes for preference and non-preference admissions. Were that the case, as a business consultant I’d advise all colleges to get rid of their admissions offices and just use a magic 8 ball. The results would be the same

  7. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Of course, we’re not talking here about race.

  8. Sean Mays says:


    No, we’re talking about what? SES?? I haven’t seen it broken out that way. There’s some relation between the two and it ties in strongly to the lying aspect of the arguement. I thought there was a modicum of merit

  9. Michael E. Lopez says:


    The article seems mainly concerned with Pell Grant recipient percentages. It’s really directed at low-income students as is my commentary on it.

    That there is a real (though obviously contingent) correlation between income and race in this country is, I think, beside the point. Race has little to do either with Leonhardt’s argument about elite colleges, or the fact that he’s being deceitful.

    Now all the same types of arguments can be made about racial affirmative action and its various justifications and problems, to be sure. And if that’s what you meant to say, well, then I agree with you. And if you’d like to join Cal in making the argument that even if we are talking about SES, we’re not talking about tiny adjustments here, but large manipulations of admissions factors, well, sure. I’m all ears for that argument. And if it leans on prior experience with race-based AA, well, then that’s what the argument is.

    That’s all good. I just didn’t want anyone to think that *I* was talking about race, because I’m not; and I wanted to discourage the thread from taking off in that direction, because that’s really not what the article was about.

  10. Of course, we’re not talking here about race.

    Yes, we actually are. And that’s what the article is about. It just doesn’t say so.

    Poor whites outscore non-poor blacks on every admissions test metric there is. So no affirmative action is needed to bring in poor whites, unless they are only being compared to wealthy whites and wealthy asians.

    In fact, on the CST, the gap between economically disadvantaged (ED) whites and non-ED whites is larger than the gap between ED blacks and non-ED blacks:

    Algebra I
    EDW : 315
    NEDW: 352
    EDB: 291
    NEDB: 307

    Algebra II
    EDW: 317
    NEDW: 337
    EDB: 282
    NEDB: 300

    Poverty does not trump race. If you want to talk about lies, then it’s lying (or perhaps simple delusion) to pretend that affirmative action under discussion is entirely race-based. When the poor of one race outscore the non-poor of another, it’s a lie to pretend we aren’t talking about race instead of poverty.

  11. According to the Ver Bruggen article, poor whites are significantly disadvantaged in the admissions process; exactly the opposite for blacks.

    There was also a recent article that found that elite colleges actively discriminated against applicants with membership in organizations like FFA, FHA, 4-H, particularly if an applicant had leadership positions or national honors. I suspect that members are typically, white, rural/small-town and not particularly affluent, so it’s another hit for poor-to-middle-class whites.

  12. well, sure. I’m all ears for that argument.

    It’s not an argument. It’s a fact.

    SAT Percentile ranks by gender and ethnicity

    Only 6% of African Americans got over 600 in Reading (the numbers are 4% for math and writing). Just 850 African Americans got over 700 on either section of the SAT. I believe only 200 or fewer African Americans score above 1500 on the combined reading/math.

    That means that the vast majority of the top 20 elite schools are duking it out for African Americans with mid 600 scores. By the time you get to the 20-40 ranked schools, they have blacks with the low to mid-500s–and since only 23% of blacks get above 500, they reach into the 400s quickly.

    The anvil is considerable. Schools might refuse to release their admits, but it doesn’t matter. There aren’t enough high scores to go round.

    The numbers are similar for Hispanics–a few percentage points better, but not much.

  13. Sean Mays says:

    momof4: Those organizations you cited also tend to be conservative. That might be a factor to consider. Can you link or cite your article?

  14. I can’t remember where I saw the article; it might have even been linked on this blog, but I think it was probably within the last 6 months. I don’t dispute the fact that there might (!) be anti-conservative bias in elite academic circles, but it’s another way to discriminate against non-elite whites.

    Regarding Cal’s last post, the racial discrepancy in scores would fit with a study that found that seniors at elite colleges had more negative views of the ability of blacks/Hispanics than did freshmen; the difference in preparation/ability/motivation/whatever else was easily observable. (can’t remember that cite, either – sorry) Some have asserted that such discrepancies push kids into the softest programs, such as the various “studies.”

    In law and medicine, the effects of student/school mismatch are more easily quantifiable, since passing the bar exam, both National Boards and specialty boards are required for practice. All of these correlate strongly with LSAT and MCAT scores, which correlated with SATs. I think the author of that study is Sanders, from one of the CA schools.

  15. Cranberry says:

    Sean Mays,

    The researcher? Professor Thomas Espenshade, Princeton, who wrote the book reviewed by your earlier link.

  16. Sean Mays says:


    I can’t help but notice that CST scores you gave for Algebra II are generally lower than for Algebra I. My general intuition would be more math = better score. That’s born out on the ACT for example. Might I ask for your 2 cents worth? I couldn’t find the standard deviations for the mean scores on the CDE/STAR website.

    Cranberry: I didn’t knowingly reference the douthat article or Espenshade. Upon reading the douthat blog I notice that the negative effect of 4H etc seems to apply to the leaders and medal winners. In other words, those who exhibit “leadership”.

    FWIW: I should have been more explicit in saying I was using the best dataset I knew of (race) as a proxy for SES / income. For the MBTI-aware folks, I tend to be VERY N and sometimes don’t explain all the jumps and assumptions.

    I’d be curious to know what Mr. Marx thinks would be an appropriate number of Pell Grant students. Should it reflect society at large and by what metric(s). We could pump MORE money into government aid programs for students, which I suspect would drive further excessive inflation in education. Eventually, 99% of us will need aid just to send our kids to State U; much less Amherst.

  17. Cranberry says:

    “In other words, those who exhibit “leadership.””

    Most applicants to elite private universities are required to display “leadership,” as well as academic excellence.

  18. Sean Mays says:

    Yes, I’m well aware of that and according to the blog and research cited, these are exactly the students that the bias sets in against…

    (This outcome affects only students who have won awards or assumed leadership positions in these activities, not those known for their extensive involvement)

    Look! I’m a batallion commander at my high school ROTC = ding. All leadership experiences are equal, but some are more equal than others.

  19. Sean, it’s actually higher for EDW, probably because the only white kids who get that far are the highly motivated. NEDW and NEDB are more likely to get there after passing algebra and geometry, but not necessarily a lot of skill. EDBs would be more likely to be put there in urban and charter schools that don’t have ability standards and pass everyone.

    But that’s just speculation. AII/Trig is just a tough class.

  20. Michael – You’ll find this post by Harvard economics professor (and former Bush advisor) Greg Mankiw of interest.

    (I commented on it at my own site.)

    Incidentally, over the years I have learned to be skeptical of Leonhardt’s arguments. Far too often he uses data to decorate his conclusions, rather than testing his conclusions against the data.