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Students From Farming Communities Beware: America’s Elite Universities Have A Bias Against You

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, July 20, 2010

Organizations such as the PMA Foundation for Industry Talent have missions that include making young people aware of the opportunities that exist for them to work in the produce industry. There may be a bigger opportunity for this than we realized as a new study indicates that many students from farm families and from the broader farm culture are not particularly valued at some of America’s most elite colleges.

Russell K. Nieli works for Princeton’s highly regarded James Madison Program in American Ideals. He has written an essay titled, How Diversity Punishes Asians, Poor Whites and Lots of Others, for the “Minding Our Campus” website of the Center for the American University at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. The piece analyzes a new study that focuses on the effect of affirmative action on poor white children and Asians. We will leave that analysis to another venue.

But we noted that Dr. Nieli also picked up on an anti-farm culture attitude in these elite institutions:

… what Espenshade and Radford found in regard to what they call “career-oriented activities” was truly shocking even to this hardened veteran of the campus ideological and cultural wars. Participation in such Red State activities as high school ROTC, 4-H clubs, or the Future Farmers of America was found to reduce very substantially a student’s chances of gaining admission to the competitive private colleges in the NSCE database on an all-other-things-considered basis.

The admissions disadvantage was greatest for those in leadership positions in these activities or those winning honors and awards. “Being an officer or winning awards” for such career-oriented activities as junior ROTC, 4-H, or Future Farmers of America, say Espenshade and Radford, “has a significantly negative association with admission outcomes at highly selective institutions.” Excelling in these activities “is associated with 60 or 65 percent lower odds of admission.”

Espenshade and Radford don’t have much of an explanation for this find, which seems to place the private colleges even more at variance with their stated commitment to broadly based campus diversity. In his Bakke ruling, Lewis Powell was impressed by the argument Harvard College offered defending the educational value of a demographically diverse student body: “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 Espenshade/Radford study suggests that those farm boys from Idaho would do well to stay out of their local 4-H clubs or FFA organizations — or if they do join, they had better not list their membership on their college application forms. This is especially true if they were officers in any of these organizations. Future farmers of America don’t seem to count in the diversity-enhancement game played out at some of our more competitive private colleges, and are not only not recruited, but seem to be actually shunned. It is hard to explain this development other than as a case of ideological and cultural bias.

We’ve always found the argument for diversity in college admissions to be intellectually questionable. Sure the blending of lots of different perspectives could enrich an environment, but a college is specifically a place of intellectual pursuit and we’ve never heard of one single college trying to increase the number of, say, conservatives or libertarians or any other ideology attending the campus because they want to make sure every class has vibrant intellectual diversity. Instead diversity is typically used as a code word for racial balance — and we were always more interested in a person’s ideas than the color of his or her skin.

If this study is correct and elite colleges are looking down on high school leaders in organizations such as Future Farmers of America, 4-H and high school ROTC, it is further evidence that the admission committees have little interest in the kind of diversity that really might matter and are only interested in what they perceive as “good statistics” — showing racial balance.

We actually believe that societal interests are best served by avoiding giving admission committees much flexibility. When the Pundit parents were growing up in New York City, they went to the then-free City College system, which was popularly known as the “Poor Man’s Harvard” and graduated such luminaries as Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell, Felix Frankurter, Irving Kristol, Bernard Malamud, Jonas Salk, Andy Grove and many others.

What was interesting about the admissions system back then was that there was no mystery. Most students got in based on their high school grades, and the score needed for entry was known. Because there was recognition that some students matured later and so might not have a high GPA, there was a “second chance,” whereby one could also take an entrance exam. Finally, many who didn’t qualify for admission to one of the four-year colleges — The City College, Brooklyn College, Hunter College and Queens College — did qualify for entry into either a “general studies” program at the four-year colleges or into one of the two-year community colleges. If a student took an academic program at the Community Colleges and performed well, he could transfer to a four-year college.

Many colleges have special needs — and we understand waiving requirements to get a bassoon player for the school orchestra or a forward for the basketball team. But allowing admission committees unbridled discretion is likely to lead to bias — like valuing an officer of the FFA or 4-H Club or high school ROTC as a lesser candidate than the officer of a club more in line with the admission committee’s social biases.

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