Saturday, April 28, 2007

Let's Finally Put Harvard To Good Use

Against all odds, I found myself liking this column by New York Times writer Michael Winerip about the college admissions rat race. "Against all odds" because, as someone who did not go to Harvard, I regard columns by people who make a point of telling you that they did go to Harvard with a fair amount of suspicion. And Winerip doesn't help matters by devoting most of his column to the fairly hackneyed point that many of today's high school seniors (whom he interviews as a Harvard alum) have far more impressive credentials than he did at their age.

But then Winerip concludes with a worthwhile point. His own kids, he says, are neither qualified for Harvard (by today's standards) nor interested in going there. And Winerip has figured out that that's perfectly all right:
I came to understand that my own focus on Harvard was a matter of not sophistication but narrowness. I grew up in an unworldly blue-collar environment. Getting perfect grades and attending an elite college was one of the few ways up I could see.

My four have been raised in an upper-middle-class world. They look around and see lots of avenues to success. My wife's two brothers struggled as students at mainstream colleges and both have made wonderful full lives, one as a salesman, the other as a builder. Each found his own best path. Each knows excellence.
Winerip's observation about the difference between being blue-collar (and having few paths to prosperity) and being well-to-do (and having many options) leads to me make this modest suggestion: Why shouldn't every seat at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia be reserved for a working-class kid?

After all, as Winerip suggests, blue-collar students are the candidates who need the leg up and will probably benefit from it the most. Let the rich "settle" for schools like Purdue and Rutgers and Boston College and SUNY Binghamton. Thanks to the networking connections, social skills, and extra-curricular experiences they've derived from their families, they'll do fine anyway. And I bet that, in a generation or so, the rising tide of income inequality in this country will have been solidly reversed.

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