It's your misfortune, and none of my own

Check out this pickup from Flavia last week featuring some public boo-hoo-hooing by one of suburban Philadelphia’s tragically overlooked and underprivileged, those who didn’t get into their top choice college:

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. 

J***** A**** K****
Philadelphia, May 27, 2011
.       .       .       .       .      

[T]his 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. K.: people like her deserve all rather than most of the cookies.

(As a graduate of 2/3 of the same institutions that Ms. K. attended, I just have to say:  boy, is my face red!)

Ms. K. doesn’t write about the kind of advantage she enjoyed in admissions relative to other worthy students with her identical scores at least for undergraduate admission:  several years ago, Bryn Mawr switched from a proud need-blind admission policy to a need-aware policy, which means that once the admissions committee decides to offer admission to their first- and second-round draft choices, they start offering admission strategically.  In other words, if the college thinks your folks can foot the bill, you get an advantage towards admission that other students with middle-class or poor parents don’t get. 

I remember on my college tour in 1985, Bryn Mawr boasted about the fact that their admissions operated in the need-blind fashion–they prided themselves on offering admission to people regardless of financial need.  The tour guides we had, the admissions interviewer, and the financial aid officer all bragged about this, and pointed out that the admissions office and the financial aid people worked in two entirely different buildings to illustrate the point that they were geographically as well as operationally separate departments.  (They were considerably less proud of their adoption of need-aware admissions in recent years–go figure!) 

Needless to say, it really chaps my a$$ that wealthy, privileged folks always forget the most obvious source of their privilege:  it’s the money, honey!

39 thoughts on “It's your misfortune, and none of my own

  1. I have a friend who’s tenured at Bryn Mawr and she says the kids she teaches have huge gaps both in knowledge and self-awareness. And yes, of course they argue over their grades — because Mommy taught them they were little geniuses, and the teachers apparently didn’t get the message.

    The Anne Richards quip “born on third base and thinks he hit a triple” comes to mind.


  2. I really did not appreciate Flavia’s comment that because of her upbringing she SHOULD have done better on the SAT. I went to very good private schools, K-12, and it took me 2 tries on the SAT to break 1000.


  3. That’s depressing.

    I didn’t get into any of the need-aware schools I applied to, but did get into all but one of the need-blind schools (and I was waitlisted there). My parents were amazed at how much financial aid we qualified for at the place I ended up.

    And yes, I am much more impressed by an economically disadvantaged 1250 than an advantaged 1300. The former signals ganas, the other signals, well, not being so awesome, though respectable. No offense to henry (maybe it’s a testing disability?)


  4. Thanks Nicole. I have ended up having quite a nice life, despite my shortcomings on something that, really, I *should* have done better on.


  5. Henry, here’s the thing: are you writing letters to the New York Times bemoaning how you deserve to have more than someone with fewer material advantages? You are not. I interpreted Flavia’s comment as being about the fact that clearly this person who wrote the letter thinks she’s hot stuff when perhaps given all of her advantages she should be a bit more humble.


  6. umm, technically tests like the SAT (and ACT etc) only claim to measure the likelihood of a student’s success in the first semester of college. They are not supposed to be able to predict anything beyond that. None of these tests are designed to be a measure of general intelligence (even though that is what the culture tends to view them as). You could do perfectly well in college without having stellar SATs. Conversely you could have a perfect score and promptly drop out after the first semester due to cannabis poisoning. YMMV.

    High SAT and ACT scores correlate most strongly with higher income. The wealthier you are the higher the score tends to be.

    I am looking forward to Ms K running on the tea party ticket in the next decade. I am sure she will do a bang up job of pressing home the class war of the rich on everyone else.


  7. I always think its fascinating how, on the one hand, people pay big money to send their children to private schools *because* they will get a better education than at state schools and because they are being networked into an ‘old boy’s system’ that will give them future advantages in their career (and some people will scrimp and save to give their children this advantage). But, in the same breath, they can claim that those advantages don’t exist and so shouldn’t be counted when assessing merit. So your parents were just throwing away their money?

    In the UK, top private schools teach children in classes of 6-12 kids, compared to 30ish kids with multiple learning levels and needs in a state school class (not to mention having resource advantages). And, then, they get into Oxbridge which have class sizes of half that of most other universities, and then they come out with shiny degrees and go on to take all the top jobs in the country. And, yes, they can no doubt work to the level their qualifications prove they can, but they were given double (if not more) the amount of teacher attention to get there! Why is that impressive and how is it a meritocracy?


  8. Beyond the many other problems here, someone who went to Bryn Mawr, Penn, and Oxford should know that a 50 point SAT difference is pretty meaningless — 1250 and 1300 are practically the same score for most intents and purposes. That’s exactly the kind of situation where other factors SHOULD come into play.


  9. I recall, now, an old BF who was applying to grad school. He was, like JAK above, someone who’d had substantial privileges.

    I was helping him with his applications.

    When I got to the section about “undergraduate employment,” I noticed that it was blank.

    “Oh,” I said, “you forgot to fill in this part.”

    “No,” he said, “I didn’t have a job [at a superswanky Ivy]. I just studied.”

    I know I was naive, but this astounded me. He was the first person I had met who had NOT HAD TO WORK as a college student. Everyone I knew had had to wait tables, work at the dining hall, work at the library, work retail, do agricultural tasks, &c. My own parents had worked their way through college–at restaurants and at factories–and my brother and I had started working as teens.

    And all this work, for me and my peers, was IN ADDITION to taking out massive student loans to pay for school.

    Above exBF did not have to take out loans, either, BTW.

    Did he have high scores on all his tests? Yes. Did my esteem for him begin to shrivel? You bet.


  10. Henry: what Dr. C said. I’m not an SAT fundamentalist, and I have incredibly talented students of my own who did quite poorly on the SAT.

    But since the letter-writer clearly does believe that the SAT is an important sign of “talent” (so much so that she thinks 50 points indicates a meaningful difference in ability) she should be aware that — according to her own metric — her score ain’t so great.

    Apologies for the unintended offense.


  11. That’s so disappointing about Bryn Mawr. My middle-schooler had to do a research paper about a college/uni and she wrote about Swarthmore — they say they are need-blidn — is that still true?
    Speaking of student loans — another reason to be wary of them — apparently they may now lead to SWAT teams breaking down your door:

    On June 7th, a S.W.A.T. team broke into the house of a man in Stockton, California looking for the estranged wife of Kenneth Wright. The reason? She was in default of her student loans, and the arrest order was given not by a judge, but by the Federal Department of Education.


  12. This is a complaint by somebody who DID get into the schools mentioned in the letter? The “loss” is that somebody slightly below on the SAT scale also got in? I bet it got worse from that point on. The downscale admittee probably began taking out all the library books that J.A.K needed! What a bummer. And the DOE can issue arrest warrants? Back when I was dilly-dallying on repaying student loans, the incumbent president was calling for the abolition of the DOE. Regrettably, it didn’t happen.


  13. Un-be-fucking-lievable.

    College applicants coming out of the private school system that the original letter-writer wrote about have another advantage: in many of these schools, students are given extensive coaching and assistance in selecting colleges and preparing their applications, usually beginning in the 10th grade or so. Meanwhile, students across town are crammed into classrooms where they’re drilled in rote memorization for standardized tests, and where there’s little to no culture of higher education, and few or no AP classes to inflate that GPA. The fact that some of these latter students succeed, get relatively high SATs and GPAs, and write excellent entrance applications, *ought* to factor in to admissions decisions.

    “Born on third base” is damn right.


  14. Money also walks in a way that school-specific aid doesn’t. The then need-blindness of the school I went made the difference in my ability to attend: like Nicole, I didn’t get into most of the need-aware places I applied to. My undergraduate has gone need-aware, and I probably wouldn’t be able to get in now because of it. Could I have taken my financial aid and gone elsewhere? No. The very same privilege that got Ms. K that 1300 also gives her the privilege to take her money and go (or transfer) elsewhere.


  15. @Votermom Swat (as we call it) is still need-blind. But it’s endowment is much bigger than Bryn Mawr’s. This is a function of being a co-ed school where students tended to marry each other. Women’s and girls’ schools tend to have smaller endowments than men’s and boys’ schools because husbands wills generally sent the big donations to his alma mater rather than his wife’s. Girls’ and women’s schools were thus especially hard hit by the financial downturn.

    The girls school I work for was not as hard hit (although we raised $200,000 in largely “nickles and dimes” from young alumni for emergency financial aid to keep families in the school whose parents had lost jobs). Our endowment was managed by women who had kept us out of the riskiest high return investments and thus we suffered minimal losses and recovered relatively quickly. Our business manager (who happens to be a guy), also had been socking away money for the rainy day fund. We went a year without raises but everybody kept their jobs and no students left because of money issues.

    As for private schools: Yes some do tons of SAT prep. Mine doesn’t. We do very little rote learning and avoid multiple choice. Consequently our kids do terribly on the SAT (even factoring for anti-girl bias). They do better on the ACT, which at least tests learned knowledge. However, once in college, our students do phenomenally well because of our emphasis on reading, writing, time management, research processes, collaborative learning, and studentship. Consequently, colleges have been cutting our students some slack on the standardized tests. The fact that we give real grades helps. Also, about 30% of our kids get financial aid from the school and I would say 50-70% of the Upper School students who are old enough to work summer jobs do so. (The number is kind of flexible b/c I don’t know whether to count babysitting and similar under the table work as jobs or not, although kids often make enough in the summer to kick in for school or pay for the car that gets them to school). The other 30 percent are in the awesome summer enrichment opportunity club, although even some of these kids may work some. A kid who said something like JAK’s letter would get a major beat down at my school from her fellow students (and in fact, we had a similar incident were a kid was ostracized for saying “rich people work harder” in class. Even though 70 percent of the class is technically, rich.

    Their biggest resentment is against boys getting affirmative action in competitive colleges.


  16. “David Leonhardt forgot about me.” Er, no, he didn’t.

    Unless this letter writer means something like, “David Leonhardt forgot to single me out by name [me! me! me! it’s all about me!] as a good example of the affluent backgrounds of those attending elite colleges”?



  17. Having just gone through the PhD application process I’ll point out that I didn’t get into a lot of perfectly respectable but struggling state schools. I did get into two ivys. The have and have not quality works on that level too.

    I can tell you that I have a community college degree, a BA from a (very respectable) flagship public university and a MA from a second string public university in a “scary” city. The most difficult problem I’m having in the transition to my next program is the idea of a place where the people don’t seem to notice how lucky they are to have the resources they have.

    A cousin of mine also did the public university to public university to ivy transition through her BA/MA/PhD route and had the same culture shock. The golf between even the “public ivy” state universities and the private system is huge and getting bigger every day. Am I sorry I am now getting the advantages of that resource difference? No. Am I embarrassed by it? Yes.


  18. Western Dave:

    There was a lot of resentment at my undergrad by the women against the men because the school had been “gender norming” the class. My admitted class was 60% female. A university admitted that if they hadn’t gender normed the class it would have been 70% female.

    As someone who got in the second year I applied because I was wait listed the first year when I was tranferring I can sure as hell tell you I resented the practice.


  19. That Bryn Mawr took J*****A****K**** –complete with preening entitlement, nothing-special SATs, and no geographic contribution to the Main Line campus–tells us what we need to know about the importance of need-blind admissions. The applicant that J*****A****K**** dislodged, who couldn’t pay quite so much, would have done much more for the college.


  20. Western Dave is completely wrong about the reason that Bryn Mawr’s endowment is smaller than Swat’s. We don’t have husbands who refuse to share the charitable contribution budget with us–we’re all man-hating, anti-natalist dykes.


  21. Does anyone remember class wars? They continue, although the rich changed tactics, they now claim that the non rich have no right to defend themselves.

    As for the complainer from Oxford, I am not afraid of joining the war against you and your minted squirt gun. I didn’t attend any oh-ha school, my hands may be less manicured, but I don’t feel lesser than any of you assholes.


  22. Feeling the tri-college love. er Wait, respect. Love would be completely inappropriate. Respect, I meant respect. Hey, put me down, where are you taking me? No, not the educational video and discussion group, not the educational video and discussion group, anything but that! NOOOOOOOOO!

    (5 earnest hours later)….

    Hello, My name is Western Dave and I’m a recovering patriarch.

    (Hi Dave!)


  23. Check out the story in the NYT today (6/8) about the thousand dollar a week parental tutorial arms race that’s broken out in high-end NYC private schools to get kids through “legendary” rigorous courses like “Integrated Liberal Studies” (no irony intended, one presumes) and the “equally notorious” interdisciplinary course “Constructing America.”


  24. @Indyanna – I can’t believe I’m wasting my time as a t-t prof when I could be earning thousands of $$ a WEEK in NYC tutoring rich kids on Liberal Studies. A new job opportunity for underemployed academics. Of course we’d all have to live in New Jersey.


  25. Spend any time at Oxford and you quickly learn that ‘self-funded N. American DPhil’ is a synonym for ‘rich but not particularly bright’.

    Apparently, if you’re too thick to get that not-too-subtle clue, you write letters to the NYT boasting that you couldn’t get funding for your doctoral studies, thereby proving the point.

    And now, realizing the cash gains that rich self-funding overseas students bring in, the history-rich but cash-poor university is debating whether to offer ‘extra’ places to home students who can afford to pay overseas rates up front (

    J. A. K. will surely be delighted.


  26. RE: thousand dollars a week tutoring

    I had a buddy in grad school who quit his TA job to tutor rich kids in the suburbs for the ACT and SAT. The difference in pay was significant enough to where he did not miss the tuition waiver and insurance that came with the TA job. This was in a major metropolitan area in the Midwest (that was not Chicago). So it can pay to cater to the ‘needs’ of upper class.


  27. After reading the letter to the editor, I’ve realized that I need to resort to yoga breathing in the short term. In the long term, I’ve realized that I need to do a better job of helping my students (at Bryn Mawr) recognize their privileged status.


  28. A friend of mine (bright, but somewhat dazzled by the romance of Oxford) is just about to go the self-funded route to a DPhil there…would have taken out huge loans if she hadn’t gotten some fund help from the Canadian gov’t (and probably will still need loans). I’m now not sure whether to pass on that Oxford quip or not…


  29. OTOH, if you are going to self-fund a PhD as an international student in the UK, why not study at Oxbridge? The difference in fees is pretty minimal across institutions (as are the entry requirements), and while we can bitch about it, an Oxbridge degree does have status that means something when applying for jobs.

    How many other discussions have we had on this blog about primacy placed on graduating institutions that actively discriminates against so many people? So, why not play the system when you can?


  30. I think the “Are you going to self-fund a PhD as an international student in the UK” is the most important clause in your comment, Feminist Avatar–once someone has answered yes to that question, the Oxbridge becomes the obvious choice for most people. The bigger question, for me, anyway, is whether one should turn down a funded NA PhD spot in favour of self-funding at Oxbridge…or even how problematic it is that a student who may not have attained a funded PhD spot in North America (or one that was up to his/her imagined standards), will cheerfully head off to hand over big bucks to Oxbridge, as the student letter-writer at the top did, to pay for the prestige he/she couldn’t find here.


  31. I was a lazy prep school fuckeup who got into an ivy league university because my fucken dad went there. But at least I have the fucken self-awareness to keep my fucken mouth shut and be grateful for my good fortune.

    Oh, and being all proud of your fucken self because you scored 1300 on the SATs is fucken pathetic. That’s in the bottom 25% of admitted students for all the schools in the ivy league. Almost 25% of the undergrads at the university where I work got motherfucken 1600s.


  32. Pingback: It’s a Link new day « Grumpy rumblings of the untenured

  33. I think that, unless you are doing a PhD just for your own personal enjoyment (and not for your career), self-funding anywhere is a bit of a fool’s game. You are spending a whole lot of money with little guarantee of a return.

    It is a bit easier to do it in the UK though, where a PhD for a home student costs about £3000 a year, for 3 years (even at Oxbridge), and you can do it part-time (so only paying half of that a year over 6-8 years) and allowing you to work. (I don’t know if this will change after this year, as the government have just agreed to up u/grad fees to £9000 a year!) Because it is relatively cheap, I know people who have self-funded who aren’t really rich and privileged, just unable to get funding. Some of these have been mature students, who have done their degrees at ‘lesser’ institutes whose students find it impossible to get funding, even if they have top marks. So, I guess for those willing to take the financial risk, it can act as a mobility aid for some.

    Just for the record, a self fund in the UK, even at Oxbridge, is cheaper than a self-fund at many of the Ivys in the US. Fees for a humanities PhD at Oxford are £12700 a year for 2012, which is roughly $25,000. You pay this for 3 years, in which time you should have finished, or pay a discounted rate for the fourth year. So, while it is certainly a choice for the rich and privileged, it might make more financial sense than some US options.


Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.