I needed to finish reading this one, since it is due back to the library. As someone who had briefly attended an elite University (endowment of over $10B), who used to work at a place that claims to be elite (Endowment slightly over $1B), currently works at a public school/college/university that aspires to be elite and is leaning that way (endowment of around $300M), this book made lots and lots of sense. The full title of the book is Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us.
I should also note that the author had extensively talked about the work of another author (Sara Goldrick-Rab) in Chapter 17 (pages 227-242) concerning another book that I had read, Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream. I read that book about a year ago, but I forgot to blog about it, so this is a good reason to talk about both books at the same time here.
Let me start with the book by Dr. Goldrick-Rab. She wrote about how the state of Wisconsin created a scholarship or grant system to encourage more students from lower-income families to attend college in Wisconsin. Dr. Goldrick-Rab was able to use data from that system and she interviewed about 50 students to see how it impacted them, and to see if it met the goals of the program. In short, I remember reading many of the stories of students and their financial difficulties getting through college. The grants helped some of the students finish their degrees, but it did not help lift as many students out of lower income situations as I would have thought.
Now on to the book that I just finished by Prof. Evan Mandery. He is a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice which is in the CUNY system of colleges. He had attended Harvard College and Harvard Law for his undergraduate degree and a Law degree, so he knows the Harvard system. But, he grew up in a middle class family where his dad was a teacher, and he lived in a working class/middle class neighborhood near New York City on Long Island called East Meadow (then Manhasset), NY. See chapter 8.
I felt an affinity for the author, since it seems like he came from a similar background as me, and we both graduated from HS and college in the exact same years, the mid to late 1980s. (How could I not, since he is also has an interest in Gwen Stefani.) But, both of his parents had college degrees from CUNY, while neither of my parents attended college. He was interested in the class distinctions between the kinds of students that Harvard accepts compared to the low- and middle-income students that attend John Jay College. He was able to interview many of those students in his classes. He wanted to know how some of his best students ended up at John Jay instead of at some other elite institutions. The stories of those students make the book a great read.
This book covers more than just the stories of his students; he explains the power system of the elite colleges and why they are filled with mostly rich white students. He interviewed many college administrators and faculty members who had ideas on how to address the power gaps in the system. Some of the power lies with financial donors to colleges, rich families that can pay the full tuition bill, students who play sports dominated by white students (crew, lacrosse, etc.), college admissions staff, companies that publish tests like the SAT and ACT, and administrators who want to keep the status quo.
Part of the status quo problem involves the colleges’ HUGE endowments. While they spend some of their endowments each years, they continue to grow and grow and grow, and their hoarding of wealth is a problem. They don’t use that money to help more of the less privileged kids acclimate to academic life at those elite schools.
Administrators at Harvard and Yale might say that they are just a mirror of society, and that they look the way they do, because America is that way. There is social stratification, and the schools just happen to reflect that problem. He raises the question, what if they have it backwards. “What if America looks the way it does because of Harvard and Yale?” (Page 275.) He then offers a challenge to elite schools to make significant changes in the way they accept and treat students from less privileged backgrounds.
At the very end of the book, he calls on the reader to become an agent of change. As a librarian at the Colorado School of Mines, I try to help all students with their studies regardless of their financial means. I have been working to try to make more content open access, since that makes it easier for people to view and read articles. But, what can I do to change the admission system at Mines? I don’t know. Maybe I should talk to the admissions folk at Mines to get their take on the problem.
It would be easier for me to volunteer my services to help students who are less privileged to understand and navigate the admissions process of more elite schools. I could also help them understand tests like the SAT and how to do better on the math portion of that test. I can think of a lot of ways that I can effect greater change in the unfair system.