Higher Ed Might Help Reduce Inequity (mostly doesn’t): Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast

August 29, 2016 at 7:09 am 12 comments

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.

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12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alfred Thompson (@alfredtwo)  |  August 29, 2016 at 8:11 am

    Giving to universities is something I have thought about often. Why give $50m to a university with a billion dollar endowment when you can give $10m to five universities where it will actually make a huge difference in the impact on the school?

  • 2. kirkpams  |  August 29, 2016 at 8:33 am

    The Carlos discussion reminds me of Herb Kohl’s I Won’t Learn from You.

    • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  August 29, 2016 at 10:22 am

      There’s definitely a sense of differing priorities and agendas. Carlos seems to want the educational opportunities, but concern for his family comes first.

  • 4. Bonnie  |  August 29, 2016 at 12:11 pm

    I teach at a school that does see it as its mission to give opportunity to students from poor backgrounds. I believe around 43% of our students are Pell-eligible, and we were recently ranked as the third most diverse campus in the US. So we are trying pretty hard. But it isn’t enough to just give out financial aid. Students from poor backgrounds often are underprepared by their K12 schools, and are first in their family to attend college, so they don’t know how to work the system. There needs to be money to support these students, in myriad ways. I think some very out of the box thinking is needed.

    • 5. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  August 29, 2016 at 2:51 pm

      UCSC has 51% Pell-eligible freshmen (I don’t know the overall number) and 30% underrepresented minorities [http://ahed.assembly.ca.gov/sites/ahed.assembly.ca.gov/files/hearings/Bob%20Samuels%20Background%20A%20University%20Divided.pdf]. Our campus spends quite a bit on support for first-in-family to attend college, but it doesn’t really compensate for inadequate K–12 education. Students from top schools come in 2 or 3 years ahead of students from weak schools—it is hard to compensate for that difference in 4 years of college, especially when the students with poorer prep often have less time while in college to study, as they are required to work to pay for it.

      • 6. Mark Guzdial  |  August 30, 2016 at 4:35 pm

        UCSC and Bonnie’s school are both doing even more than Vassar for providing access to low SES students. That’s terrific. The issue of school preparation is huge — agreed.

        Gladwell is focusing on a slightly different perspective on the problem. He paints Carlos as being super smart, e.g., “Nothing in math class has ever been hard.” He points out that the 35K students identified by Avery and and Hoxby are even more amazing than you might first think. These kids meet acceptance qualifications for the Ivy League schools on one attempt at the SAT — no super-scoring, no tutoring. And they never even apply. While the schools they attend may not be great, for some reason (e.g., family situation? books? “Good Will Hunting”?), they are pretty amazing.

        It feels like the stories I heard about in India. Schools like IIT-Bombay have excellent students. But primary and secondary schools in India are pretty low quality on average. Where did these excellent students come from? Some come from private schools. But others can do great work, despite the average low quality of the schools. As one person pointed out to me in India, when you have 1.2 BILLION citizens, even if only a small percentage of students are amazing and gifted, that turns out to be a pretty large number.

        • 7. Bonnie  |  August 30, 2016 at 6:36 pm

          Even with high SATs, I suspect these kids need assistance. Most likely, they just coasted through their low performing schools and developed no work habits of any sort. They also still will struggle with the basic problems I see all the time – not understanding that they need to see the professor when there are problems, low self esteem, not knowing how to access academic resources, not understanding that assignments have to be done and handed in. The students I work with often don’t realize they need to have paper and pencil in class, or that they need to take notes, because they never did anything like that in HS. The high SAT scorer from a poor background still went to those low performing schools and never had to take notes or hand things in. It is a big culture shock.

  • 8. nickfalkner  |  August 29, 2016 at 6:42 pm

    Thank you for a very interesting read. To take one small piece of the whole, the power struggles inherent in the interview are something we all have to think about and remember.

  • 9. rademi  |  September 22, 2016 at 7:46 pm

    Gladwell continually reminds me of Sturgeon’s law (“90% of everything is crap”).

    I imagine that this “law” applies to money, also, as well as to government institutions, scholastic education, and so on.

    Perhaps rather than calling it all “crap” though, it would be better to label it “irrelevant”? There is only so much one person can process, and if you focus on one thing that tends to mean you are neglecting other things.

    Somehow we get stuff done, though. And, somehow, we managed to get food to most of our people. So, I suppose that that’s something.

    Anyways, if education causes social inequity, would that mean that the absence of education creates social equality? Except the narrative shifted somewhere in there, and apparently it’s prestige associated with older northwestern universities that creates social inequity… No, wait, it’s the competitive nature of students there that creates social inequity…


    One of our greatest strengths – and greatest weaknesses – is the “bullshit factor”. We love stories, and tall tales, and we seem to need some level of fiction to lubricate our daily lives, and to lighten our days and to inspire us to put effort into things which might make things better.

    If we can even figure out what better means through all the noise.

  • […] From Gladwell’s Revisionist History, we know that diverting tuition from the rich kids to the poor kids is common in schools that aim to bring in more lower-SES students and address issues of social inequity.  Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible. Here in Georgia, we’re forbidden by law to use tuition revenue to offer scholarships to less-advantaged children.  Puts us in a rough place when competing with schools that can. […]

  • […] but that tends to be the most privileged population.  Higher education is critiqued for furthering inequity and not doing enough to serve underprivileged students.  MOOCs don’t help with that.  It […]

  • […] have the same multiple episodes with tight ties to the issues of education as last season (as I described in this blog post), there was one standout episode that does relate to our issues: Miss Buchanan’s Period of […]


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