Checking Whose Privilege

Here is a modern American story:

A young man, raised in near-poverty, graduates high school but never considers a four-year college. He can’t afford it, doesn’t know anyone who attends one, and wouldn’t know how to apply even if he wanted to. Instead he manages to complete an associate’s degree at a local community college and, loving fitness, becomes a personal trainer. He builds enough of a client base to open his own gym. And then another, and another. As a small business owner, he’s able to raise his children in a good neighborhood with excellent schools. They have piano and dance lessons, and instead of working part-time, they focus on their schoolwork in the afternoons. By the time they’re seniors in high school, their father is in a position to send them, with some loans, to top colleges. They’re everything those colleges want, he thinks; everything he was not.

Then his children’s high school guidance counselor sends his kids home to rewrite their college essays. She says they can’t write about the piano or dance lessons. It’s all too pedestrian, too privileged; none of it is exceptional. The kids are miserable. The father is stunned. He explains how he worked his way up from nothing, truly just about nothing, to give his kids everything they have, and how can this be wrong?

Oh! she says. That’s a great story! Can they write about that?

So they do. The kids frame their privileged activities within their father’s poor childhood. This gives their essays a sense of perspective. It works. So Dad takes out the loans, and sends them to college, where they know not to say anything about their background except that their dad came from “nothing” and that they have been, therefore, “very lucky.”

This delicate dance of self-effacement plays out across America every fall, when high school seniors whose families can afford college contort themselves to obscure this fact. As an independent college applications counselor, a job I held for fifteen years in the US and abroad, I worked with seniors such as the two whose story I told above; I also volunteered with low-income students for whom Yale was as foreign as the moon. In my experience, poor students suffered a great deal of shame about their communities, but in the opinion of college admissions offices, their sincere essays spoke only to their character, evidence of the obstacles they had overcome. At this point in their educations, all that shame was transferred to the wealthy kids, who approached the college essay with the imperative to hide the opportunities they had.

This spring the New York Times published the second annual edition of a popular series on college essays about money, highlighting the work of four students who are matriculating this fall. Not surprisingly, each addressed hardship: homelessness, job loss, scraping by; the least challenging experience was a boy’s part-time gig at McDonald’s.

Where was the nuanced and self-revealing essay about being privileged?

“One thing that we’ve never seen in our two years of soliciting these essays,” wrote columnist Ron Lieber, “is a great one about what it means to be rich.”

I’d bet one year’s tuition that’s not because there aren’t any rich kids who are able to write well about their experiences. It’s that as the nation’s top colleges work to recruit a greater diversity of students, students fear being penalized for appearing not to have had enough life challenges in their first seventeen years.

A few months later, Times columnist Frank Bruni lamented the extreme topics applicants choose in trying to stand out (“Naked Confessions of the College-Bound”). The examples were obscene (one former admissions officer at Yale remembered the young man who wrote that he was under-endowed), and Bruni saw a reflection of a competitive generation obsessed with self-exposure. He’s right that students are desperate to succeed in a ferociously competitive pool. But Ron Lieber’s project comes closer to understanding the real effect at work here: the danger to the college essay writer of being so well-off that his experiences could never seem valuable.

No one’s going to shed a tear for the privileged kids who don’t have the opportunity to write about their time in homeless shelters. But there is a reading bias at work here, and in my experience it causes young people to tie themselves in knots trying to avoid saying simple truths about their lives. The budding art historian who lies about where she encountered the paintings that changed her life so she doesn’t have to mention the trip to Europe. The boy who won’t give his father’s job title because it suggests too much cash.

For the most part, the students I worked with had tried hard to explore their world, within the limits and curfews of their diligent young lives. Their lack of exposure to different economic circumstances does not speak to an absence of curiosity or concern. It speaks to the pervasive and structural class division in American society, which keeps them in fancy schools and good neighborhoods, supposedly preparing for college.

Often such students travel and volunteer to experience difference. Almost every student I’ve known has fallen hard for the questions of social justice and conscience raised by this exposure. But heaven help them if they write about it in their college essays: the Times’ Ron Lieber quoted Jennifer Delahunty, an author and the director of admissions at Kenyon College, who said, “we see a lot of essays about students who have studied abroad and they recognize either their own privilege or that the poor brown people are happier than I. That’s always the ending. I absolutely hate those essays, though I sound like a cynic.”

What about the cynicism of charging $60,000 a year for college but deriding the experiences of the young people whose families can afford to pay it?

An idealistic seventeen-year-old can indeed have her life changed by witnessing the experiences of “poor brown people,” among other, “other” communities. This is a good thing: thus are educators born. And pro bono lawyers, charity directors, and Peace Corps workers. Colleges ought not devalue this experience, to see naivete (or worse) where there is only youth and evidence of an endemic, national problem.

In an ideal world, academic achievement would be uncomplicated by economic opportunity. There are more than 31,000 public high schools in the US. Each has a valedictorian. The Ivy League could fill its freshman seats with underserved students every year, if it wished. But in a recent survey conducted by Harvard’s student newspaper, more than 70% of respondents in the Class of 2017 reported a family income over $80,000, well above the national household median of $51,000. And 14% of respondents were the children of one-percenters.

The cruel and unjust truth is that the students at our nation’s top colleges are still wildly disproportionately drawn from the wealthiest families in the country. Perhaps we should stop pretending otherwise.

At its best, academic freedom enables the rigorous interrogation of received social and cultural norms. The college years can be wonderful in helping to make well-meaning students into good-doing adults. But the privileging of less-privileged experience does not encourage wisdom or equality. It teaches deception. Don’t tell us you had your eyes opened? Fine. Students will write instead about not looking at all. And when they get to college they will already have had their first powerful lesson in not bothering to grapple with the inequality of the society into which they were born.