The media focus on student debt, on congressional battles over student loans, and the scarcity of jobs for college graduates obscures the racial and class dynamics that define America’s colleges and universities. With the public discourse surrounding the unfairness of affirmative action for Whites, the threat that Ethnic Studies represents to (White) America, and the absence of “White student unions” in college campuses, public discussions re-imagine Whiteness as precarious, and Whites as victim and at the frontlines of a changing educational landscape. Despite the daily lamenting of the state and future of America’s White students, particularly those with middle and upper-middle incomes, college campuses are still White. In fact, Whites, particularly those whose parents are part of the top 5% of the income distribution, continue to reap the benefits of privilege in (1) admittance, (2) scholarship, and (3) treatment. Let’s not get things twisted here; these colleges and universities are in America, so yes the rules of the game (racism, sexism, classism) do apply.
In 2005, less than one in eight youth from the poorest 25% of society would enroll at a 4-year college university within 2 years of high school graduation. According to Peter Schmidt, author of The Color of Money, “a rich child has about 25 times as much a chance as a poor one of someday enrolling in a college rated as highly selective or better.” Colleges’ overreliance on SAT scores, heightens cultural bias, and the unequal advantages resulting from SAT prep classes, which have proven to benefit Whites and the middle-class. In addition, because admissions give credence to a school’s reputation (which cannot be seen apart from segregation, and racial and class inequality), the rules and the game of college are set up to advantage Mitt Romney’s America: the already privileged. Worse yet, the hegemony of the narratives of meritocracy and the illusion of diversity—which Lani Guiner describes as “a leaf to camouflage privilege”—obscure the endless privileges afforded to the members of middle and upper middle class White America, before they ever step foot on a college campus.
The money is there for White students, particularly those who already have class advantages. From access to prep classes to performative enhancing drugs, from legacies to the “donation path,” America’s colleges and universities are overpopulated by Whites, by the sons and daughter’s of the elite, not because of some level of intelligence, the requisite values, or some all-powerful work ethic, but because of the power of privilege and money.
This points to a clear conclusion: because of access to money, prep classes, or mere connections, that is, because of privilege, America’s colleges and universities, particularly the elite schools, are overpopulated with White students lacking the requisite skills to succeed within these spaces. It is no wonder that America’s colleges and universities are increasingly the educational weight stations for the ill prepared and ill qualified.
While the national press and politicians lament the status and predicament facing (White) college graduates, let us not forget the broader issues at work here. It is revealing that while the face of the aggrieved student is often White, and while the narrative of the student left behind is White, they are not the faces of those students who are getting admitted to universities without “deserving” to be there. Whites are not the face of having easy access to financial aid; they are not the face of those who can afford to and are using drugs without being busted; they are not the face who pop performance enhancing pills; they are not the face of cheating scandals. Yet, instead Whiteness remains the face of victimized student who deserves to be in college, who deserves to secure the American Dream. If that is the case, I think we need to return to a basic lesson: a more accurate definition of “deserve.”