- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 4, 2004

Many college commencement speeches are forgotten by the time the graduates and their parents have come home. This year, there was an exception that should be read by all high-school guidance counselors (particularly in schools with students of working-class and low-income families); college admissions officers; and parents who are not among the upper-middle-class.

At Amherst College in Massachusetts, the speaker was its president, Anthony Marx. It was both refreshing and yet troubling to hear him cut through the familiar arguments about race-based affirmative action. He underscoredafundamental inequality in access to colleges that affects so many of the young in all races and ethnic groups.

“At our top colleges,” said Amherst’s president, “only one-tenth of our students are drawn from the poorer half of the population [and] only 3 percent from the bottom quarter. Three-quarters of top college students come from the wealthiest quarter of society.”

The result, Mr. Marx emphasized, is “a wall of blocked opportunity.” This wall begins to take obstructive shape with inferior preparation for college in many schools with large proportions of the poorer half of the population.

And even elementary school kids who are bright, as I’ve seen while reporting on schools, are blocked when they move on. As Mr. Marx noted, “Among those students who are academically strong upon entering high school, the less wealthy among them (even if they do get into college) are two-and-a-half times less likely ever to earn a bachelor’s degree.” The cause is, once more, indifferent preparation in inferior high schools.

Forgotten entirely too often in academic and legislative reports on how to “reform” our educational system are those youngsters who may have the skills, but as Mr. Marx pointed out, “simply assume they cannot afford college … Federal support that once covered almost all typical college costs now covers about half.” He quotes Business Week: “[our] economy is slowly stratifying along class lines.”

But the most unfortunate of children left behind are those who never think they have a chance of getting higher education. Not only do some high- schoolguidance counselors discourage them, but, says Mr. Marx, “less-wealthy parents of eighth graders expect their children to go to college half as often as the wealthy.”

To further illuminate the class barriers to higher education, there is this telling fact about the beneficiaries of race-based affirmative action in “The Shape of the River” by William Bowen and Derek Bok. They note that “86 percent of blacks who enrolled in the 28 selective universities (we studied) were middle or upper-class.”

This often-overlooked fact is cited in a definitive current book on this increasingly pertinent issue: “America’s Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education” (Century Foundation Press, 2004). The editor, a pioneer in this research, is Richard Kahlenberg.

Mr. Kahlenberg has cited the above quote from two of the strongest advocates of race-based affirmative action, Messrs. Bowen and Bok, because they did not hide the class-based wall of blocked opportunity in their widely read book.

And recently, Mr. Bowen, now president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, said, “Allegiance to this country’s ideals requires that American higher education do more than it is doing at present to support the aspirations of high-achieving young people from modest backgrounds who want to be welcomed within the walls of what are still seen by many as ‘bastions of privilege.’”

In many cases the term “modest backgrounds” does not define parents with lower expectations of their children in what Mr. Marx refers to as the “bottom quarter of society.” These include the poor. And from down there, more students can become higher-achieving if their teachers, their parents and they themselves have reason to believe that the doors to higher education are open to them.

But even economically disadvantaged students with the true grit to achieve are often blocked. Says Mr. Marx, “Today there remain more than 300,000 highly qualified high-school seniors who do not even take the SATs to apply to college. We must find those students who are capable of high academic achievement to broaden our base.”

As he emphasizes, “The passive approach to letting talent rise is not working.”

Harvard University President Lawrence Summers pointed out in a June 8 Wall Street Journal article: “At a time when the distribution of income and wealth is becoming more and more unequal, it appears the transmission of inequality may actually be increasing … and higher education has a great deal to do with it.”

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