Rural Kids and Elite Colleges

In recent items at The New York Times, Ross Douthat has written about lower class whites and the educational opportunities they're afforded.

...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 or "Red America."

This provides statistical confirmation for what alumni of highly selective universities already know. 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 under-representation persists in the elite professional ranks these campuses feed into: in law and philanthropy, finance and academia, the media and the arts.

This breeds paranoia, among elite and non-elites alike. Among the white working class, increasingly the most reliable Republican constituency, alienation from the American meritocracy fuels the kind of racially tinged conspiracy theories that Beck and others have exploited -- that Barack Obama is a foreign-born Marxist hand-picked by a shadowy liberal cabal, that a Wall Street-Washington axis wants to flood the country with third world immigrants, and so forth.

Among the highly educated and liberal, meanwhile, the lack of contact with rural, working-class America generates all sorts of wild anxieties about what's being plotted in the heartland.

It occurred to me that Bruce Poch, the Dean of Admissions at Pomona College, where I did my undergraduate work, always had interesting thoughts about his field, so I asked him what he thought about the column.

An excerpt from his reply:

The  reality of college recruitment until this time has been largely based upon school visits and alumni attending college fairs to broaden awareness of our college brands. And, that reality, affected by efficiency needs and budget limits has meant college admission and recruitment staffs visited more urban centers to achieve geographic goals. Travel to airline hub cities means we will meet more kids, more heavily concentrated in fewer schools or areas where we may hold events.  Very rural, low population centers do get left out.  That isn't meant as a snub to those students, but it is an unfortunate reality that they will have less direct exposure to representatives from colleges.
I find absurd the contention that admissions officers discriminated against lower income and rural white students because of assumptions about religion or "red state" politics.  And I do love the 4-H kids for the diversity of experiences they bring when contrasted to a more suburban and urban mainstream for Pomona and most of the "elite" institutions.  
There is a serious self-selection factor colleges and universities do face and as grand as we are in our offerings, not everyone will find it appealing to be among such a diverse group or studying subjects more abstract in nature than what their parents may or may not tolerate easily. The web, on the other hand, has profoundly democratized information about colleges and universities and as the digital divide vanishes, more and more students from farther and farther away from "core" markets are discovering new options and digging deeper.

That seemed worth adding to the conversation. So there you go. And Mr. Douthat has more here.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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