Higher Ed Might Help Reduce Inequity (mostly doesn’t): Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast
Malcolm Gladwell’s new podcast, Revisionist History, recently included a mini-series about the inequities in society that higher education perpetuates. Higher education is a necessity for a middle class life in today’s US, but not everyone gets access to higher education, which means that the economic divide grows larger. We in higher education (an according to Richard Tapia in his foreword to Stuck in the Shallow End, we in computer science explicitly) may be playing a role in widening the economic divide. David Brooks wrote about these inequities in 2005, in his NYTimes column, titled “The Education Gap“:
We once had a society stratified by bloodlines, in which the Protestant Establishment was in one class, immigrants were in another and African-Americans were in another. Now we live in a society stratified by education. In many ways this system is more fair, but as the information economy matures, we are learning it comes with its own brutal barriers to opportunity and ascent.
Gladwell has written about higher education before. In David and Goliath: Underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants, he told the story of Caroline Sacks who loved science since she was a little girl. When she applied to college, she was accepted into both University of Maryland and Brown University. She chose Brown for its greater prestige. Unfortunately, that prestige came with a much more competitive peer set. Caroline compared herself to them, and found herself wanting. She dropped out of science. Gladwell suggests that, if she’d gone to Maryland, she might have persisted in science because she would have fared better in the relative comparison.
Gladwell’s three podcasts address who gets in to higher education, how we pay for financial aid for poorer students, and how we support institutions that serve poorer students.
In Carlos doesn’t remember, Gladwell considers whether there are poorer students who have the academic ability to succeed but aren’t applying to colleges. Ivy League schools are willing to offer an all-expenses-paid scholarship to qualified students whose family income is below a certain level, but they award few of those scholarships. The claim is that there are just few of those smart-enough-but-poor students. Economists Avery and Hoxby explored that question and found that there are more than 35,000 students in the United States who meet the Ivy League criteria (see paper here). So why aren’t they applying for those prestigious scholarships?
Gladwell presents a case study of Carlos, a bright student who gets picked up by a program aimed at helping students like him get access to high-quality academic opportunities. Gladwell highlights the range of issues that keep students like Carlos from finding, getting into, and attending higher education opportunities. He provides evidence that Avery and Hoxby dramatically underestimate the high-achieving poor student, e.g., Avery and Hoxby identified some students using eighth grade exam scores. Many of the high-achieving poor students drop out before eighth grade.
As an education researcher, I’m recommending this podcast to my graduate students. The podcast exemplifies why it’s so difficult to do interview-based research. The title of the episode comes from Carlos’s frequent memory lapses in the interview. When asked why he didn’t mention the time he and his sister were taken away from their mother and placed in foster care, Carlos says that he doesn’t remember that well. It’s hard to believe that a student this smart forgets something so momentous in his life. Part of this is a resilience strategy — Carlos has to get past the bad times in his life to persist. But part of it is a power relationship. Carlos is a smart, poor kid, and Gladwell is an author of international bestsellers. Carlos realizes that it’s in his best interest to make Gladwell happy with him, so he says what he thinks Gladwell wants to hear. Whenever there is a perceived power gap between an interviewee (like Carlos) and an interviewer (Gladwell), we should expect to hear not-quite-the-truth. The interviewee will try to tell the interviewer what he thinks the world-famous author wants to hear — not necessarily what the interviewee actually thinks.
The episode Food Fight contrasts Bowdoin College in Maine and Vassar College in New York. They are similar schools in terms of size and academics, but Bowdoin serves much better food in its cafeterias than Vassar. Vassar made an explicit decision to cut back in its food budget in order to afford more financial aid to its poorer students. Vassar spends almost twice as much as Bowdoin in financial aid, and has a much higher percentage of low-income students than Bowdoin. Vassar is explicit in the trade-offs that they’re making. Gladwell interviews a student who complains about the food quality, but says that she accepts it as the price for having a more diverse student body.
But there’s a tension here. Vassar can only afford that level of financial aid because there is a significant percentage of affluent students who are playing full fare — and those affluent students are exactly the ones for which both Bowdoin and Vassar compete. Vassar can’t balance their budget without those affluent students. They can’t keep providing for the poorer students unless they keep getting their share of the richer students. Here’s where Gladwell starts the theme he continues into the third episode, when he tells his audience, “Never give to Bowdoin!”
The third episode, My Little Hundred Million, starts from Hank Rowan giving $100 million to Glassboro State University in New Jersey. At the time, it was the largest philanthropic gift ever to a higher education institution. Since then there have been others, but all to elite schools. Rowan’s gift made a difference, saving a nearly-bankrupt university that serves students who would never be accepted at the elites. It made a difference in providing access and closing the “Education Gap,” in exactly the way that David Brooks was talking about in 2005. So why are such large gifts going instead to schools like Stanford and Harvard, who don’t play a role in closing that gap? And why do the rich keep giving to the elite institutions? Gladwell continues the refrain from the last episode. Stop giving to Harvard! Stop giving to Stanford!
The most amazing part of the third episode is an interview with Stanford President, John Hennessy. Gladwell prods him to defend why Stanford should get such large gifts. Hennessy talks about the inability of smaller, less elite schools to use the money well. Do they know how to do truly important things with these gifts? It’s as if Hennessy doesn’t understand that simply providing access to poor students is important and not happening. Hennessy is painted by Gladwell as blind to the inequities in the economy and to who gets access to higher education.
I highly recommend all of Revisionist History. In particular, I recommend this three-part mini-series for readers who care about the role that higher education can play in making our world better. Gladwell tells us that higher education has a critical role to play, in terms of accepting a more diverse range of students through our doors. We won’t do much to address the problems by only focusing on the “best and brightest.” As Richard Tapia writes in his foreword to Stuck in the Shallow End, that phrase describes much of what we get wrong in higher education.
“Over the years, I have developed an extreme dislike for the expression ‘the best and the brightest,’ so the authors’ discussion of it in the concluding chapter particularly resonated with me. I have seen extremely talented and creative underrepresented minority undergraduate students aggressively excluded from this distinction. While serving on a National Science review panel years back, I learned that to be included in this category you had to have been doing science by the age of ten. Of course, because of lack of opportunities, few underrepresented minorities qualified.”
Closing the Education Gap requires us to think differently about who we accept into higher education, who we most need to be teaching, and how we pay for it.