The Talented Tenth Problem in College Admissions

A common theme in education policy discussion, particularly with regard to college education, has to do with the best way to help get poor kids into college, and out successfully, with little debt.

At this point pretty much anyone can get admitted to college somewhere. The problem is that it costs so much to attend college that they so often drop out without a degree.

Maybe we need special program for hard working, smart poor kids. One such program exists already, apparently. It’s a experience designed for “strivers.” According to an article by David Leonhardt in the New York Times:

QuestBridge…has quietly become one of the biggest players in elite-college admissions. Almost 300 undergraduates at Stanford this year, or 4 percent of the student body, came through QuestBridge. The share at Amherst is 11 percent, and it’s 9 percent at Pomona. At Yale, the admissions office has changed its application to make it more like QuestBridge’s.

QuestBridge has figured out how to convince thousands of high-achieving, low-income students that they really can attend a top college. “It’s like a national admissions office,” said Catharine Bond Hill, the president of Vassar.

The growth of QuestBridge has broader lessons for higher education — and for closing the yawning achievement gap between rich and poor teenagers. That gap is one of the biggest reasons that moving up the economic ladder is so hard in the United States today…. But QuestBridge’s efforts are innovative enough to deserve their own attention.

The idea of QuestBridge is that the organization finds high-achieving low-income students when they’re still in high school and then track them directly into fancy colleges.

Can this work? Eh, this requires that we ask how helping a few really smart poor kids get to Williams or Stanford is important. Because it’ll make it that much easier for McKinsey to recruit minorities?

It’s probably not going to hurt anyone, but it’s hard to see how this could have any significantly positive impact on education or social class on the country as a whole. It’s just not going to matter.

DelanyBrothers

All of this starts to look a little like the Talented Tenth theory of racial improvement that people discussed in the black community during the early twentieth century. The idea, popularized by W.E.B. DuBois, was that black people could do better in this country when directed by a sophisticated and well educated leadership class of African-American men, about one in ten black men were supposed to become leaders of their race in the world. As DuBois wrote

The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.

This essentially elitist attitude eventually fell out of favor. The DuBois idea was opposed by Booker T. Washington, who advocated vocational training, and by the time of the Black Power movement of the 1960s the Talented Tenth sort of looked self-perpetuating and perhaps not so concerned with the race in general.

Selecting and targeting a few people for advancement into positions of authority and social prominence doesn’t really matter much for anyone except the people elevated by the special program.

The reality is that the United States of America is full of hard working, somewhat confused students eager to attend and graduate from college. Some of these students are very poor, some of them are pretty rich, and a lot of them are doing OK, they just don’t want to go into debt to finish college.

Most American students are strivers, on some level. We don’t need to groom a special group of superstar poor people. We just need cheaper colleges. That’s surely the best way to get hard-working kids of all social classes into college and out to good jobs.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer