Elitism and Education (Part IV): Admission Office Bias Against Rural Students?

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By Lisa R. Pruitt

In a prior post about Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford’s book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal:  Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life, I mentioned Ross Douthat’s assertion that “the downscale, the rural and the working-class” whites were most disadvantaged in elite college admissions.  In this second installment about the book and Douthat’s 2010 column comments on it, I want to discuss the rural issue, which Douthat characterizes as bias against rural or “Red America.”  Douthat wrote:

“[W]hile 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.”

In his response to Douthat’s initial column, Espenshade clarified that rural-oriented extracurriculars are not the only ones whose value is discounted by admission offices.   Espenshade wrote:

“These extracurriculars might include 4-H clubs or Future Farmers of America, as Douthat mentions, but they could also include junior ROTC, co-op work programs, and many other types of career-oriented endeavors.  Participating in these activities does not necessarily mean that applicants come from rural backgrounds.  The weak negative association with admission chances could just as well suggest that these students are somewhat ambivalent about their academic futures.”

As a related matter, Espenshade clarifies that applicants from “Red” states have better odds of getting into an elite university than those from more populous states, many of which are “Blue.”

“Compared to otherwise similar applicants from California, those from Utah are 45 times as likely to be admitted to one of our elite colleges or universities.  The advantage for applicants from West Virginia or Montana is 25 times greater, and nearly 10 times greater for students from Alabama.  Because top private schools seek geographic diversity, and students from America’s vast middle are less likely to apply, it stands to reason that their admission chances are higher.”

This part of Espenshade’s response essentially skirts the rural issue by ignoring the fact that entire states are not rural, even if they are popularly perceived as “Red.”  In short, Espenshade gets the scale wrong.  If the goal is geographic diversity beyond a very superficial level, we should be considering not an applicant’s state of origin, but rather county of origin.  I would guess that those being admitted from Montana are far more likely to hail from Billings, Bozeman, Missoula or Kalispell, less likely to have grown up in Columbus, Harlowton, Derby, or Plentywood.  As Douthat points out, admitted Alabamans hardly represent meaningful geographic diversity and do nothing to enhance socioeconomic diversity if they are products of elite institutions such as Indian Springs School in Birmingham, which is a feeder institution to the Ivy Leagues. Further, Salt Lake City, Montgomery, and Charleston are metropolitan areas, not exactly the hinterlands.

Returning to the finding regarding the impact of rural-type extracurriculars, I find it problematic for several reasons, even with the career-orientation spin that Espenshade puts on it.  My annoyance is attributable to my own education in a poor rural school where—guess what?—the only extra-curricular activities were Future Homemakers of America, Future Business Leaders of America (we learned typing and two-column bookkeeping, not portfolio management), a science club (this, ironically, although the school’s science curriculum was so limited that it offered chemistry and physics only on alternate years), basketball, and cheerleading.  In the nearly three decades since I graduated, the school has acquired an ag/vo-tech shop program, begun participating in Future Farmers of America, and expanded its sports offerings.  In just the last couple of years, it has added music/band.  Apparently, only the last of these curricular changes makes students there any more appealing to elite college admission officers.

At the risk of taking this too personally and thus undermining my argument, I’ll continue to use myself as an example. As a high school senior, I applied only to the University of Arkansas, where I was admitted and given a scholarship based strictly on “the numbers.”  Had I known I “should” apply to an elite college and done so, I apparently would have looked incredibly uninteresting to those making admission decisions—even though I had held leadership posts and won awards in all of my school’s organizations, participated in 4-H (a community activity, not a school one), and had a 4.0 GPA (no AP courses on offer).  My ACT score that was probably in about the nation’s top quartile (no prep course—didn’t know they existed and would have had to travel hours to reach one).

I’m hopelessly biased, of course, but I think I was a pretty interesting 17-year-old—regardless of how this dossier might have looked to an elite college.   Certainly I was ambitious, but because my parents were working class, I had very limited knowledge of how to get ahead in the world, and my high school did not then have a counselor.  In terms of diversity of life experience, I would say I offered a great deal to the nation’s elite colleges.

As a white class migrant in academia, I suspect I am relatively rare—especially among my generational cohort.  As a rural, working-class student with promise, however, I am sure that my 17-year-old self was/is not alone.  How many such working-class white students—especially rural ones with credentials that are even less cognizable to and appreciated by admission officers—might get ahead and achieve their potential if they had the sort of opportunities and encouragement that gets them in the pipeline to an elite college (or, for that matter, any college)?  We must ask the same question re: working class minority students, of course, but at least we know that elite college admissions officers are on the lookout for them.  Those same admissions personnel don’t appear to be looking for—or perhaps even to know how to identify—working-class whites, rural or not. Read more here.  If they do, they appear to dismiss them as uninteresting or unworthy, using the euphemism “career-oriented.”

Justice Powell wrote of the value of diversity in Bakke v. University of California Regents (1978):

“[A] great deal of learning occurs informally. It occurs through interactions among students of both sexes; of different races, religions, and backgrounds; who come from cities and rural areas, from various states and countries; who have a wide variety of interests, talents, and perspectives; and who are able, directly or indirectly, to learn from their differences and to stimulate one another to reexamine even their most deeply held assumptions about themselves and their world.”

Ironically, Powell was quoting a Princeton University admissions officer, who is also quoted in Espenshade and Radford’s book.  In Bakke, Justice Powell also referred to diversity as a “tenet of Harvard College admissions,” writing:

“Fifteen or twenty years ago … diversity meant students from California, New York, and Massachusetts; city dwellers and farm boys; violinists, painters and football players, biologists, historians and classicists; potential stockbrokers, academics and politicians.  The result was that very few ethnic or racial minorities attended Harvard College.  In recent years, Harvard College has expanded the concept of diversity to include students from disadvantaged economic, racial and ethnic groups.  Harvard College now recruits not only Californians or Louisianans, but also blacks and Chicanos and other minority students.


[T]he race of an applicant may tip the balance in his favor just as geographic origin or life spent on a farm may tip the balance in other candidates’ cases.  A farm boy from Idaho can bring something to Harvard College that a Bostonian cannot offer.  Similarly, a black student can usually bring something that a white person cannot offer.  The quality of the educational experience of all the students at Harvard College depends in part on these differences in the background and outlook that students bring with them.”

Thus, the rural-urban axis was at one time prominently recognized in relation to diversity, and the rural-urban divide has only become more marked in the several decades since Bakke.  Yet Espendshade and Radford’s study suggests that elite college admissions offices know precious little about the far rural end of the rural-urban continuum.  They don’t seem to know, for example, that extra-curricular activities are extremely limited at many rural schools, and they tend to put those that are mostly available in the death knell category:  “career-oriented.”  Admission officers are perhaps not aware of the impact of spatial inequality and isolation, rural poverty, and other aspects of rural disadvantage (e.g., limited curriculum) on students’ lives, as well as on their college aspirations and applications.  Or, maybe they are aware are and just have a “too bad,” “tough break” attitude.

If geographical context is beyond the knowledge of those assessing the presumably rare applications from rural students—those effectively denying these students access to elite education and its apparently snowballing benefits—how can the expansive view of diversity endorsed by the Bakke Court be achieved?  Just as admission offices seem to know little of the realities of white working class, so they know little about the rural sub-set of that group.  This blind spot seems to me one more reason that elite colleges should affirmatively seek to admit rural and other white working class youth.  If we don’t facilitate their class migration, how are we going to know what we know—and what we don’t know—about the lived realities of these socially and spatially removed groups?

Cross-posted to ClassCrits Blog, UC Davis Faculty Blog, and Legal Ruralism.