Classism: the big invisible ism

One of the university’s aims—if increasingly crowded out by others—is the discovery and dissemination of knowledge. If this alone were the goal, admissions might be based solely on academic promise, which grades and test scores reflect in a limited and imperfect way. But this is not the only mission. To many, universities today are “supposed to be the engines of social mobility and the gateways to dreams,” as New York Times columnist Frank Bruni colorfully puts it. This suggests universities should consider who would benefit most from admission. More prosaically, many universities manage several semiprofessional sports teams, for which they must recruit, necessitating a preference for athletes. And prestigious universities, in particular, have historically been finishing schools for the hereditary elite, a role that introduces criteria that favor the wealthy and powerful. This last role is distasteful to many, but it is hard to deny that it figures in elite admissions decision-making.
These roles can be complementary, but they are often in tension. The elite status that powers the “engine” of social mobility for the select few is in part a consequence of academic excellence. But it is also, in larger part, the result of networking with privileged young people who already enjoy the benefits of wealth and family connections. The effect of this preprofessional social networking—the chance to rub shoulders with and learn the habits, customs, and social mores of people whose success is guaranteed by their inheritance and their parentage—is powerful.

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