My colleague Greg Anrig's critique of Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, discusses Murray's claim that top-tier universities perpetuate a genetically superior elite, whose privilege further isolates them from working-class Americans. As Anrig points out, class privilege in higher education is a problem The Century Foundation takes seriously (our own research shows that 74 percent of the students at highly selective colleges come from the richest socioeconomic quartile, while just 3 percent come from the bottom fourth).
The fact is that among high school students who score in the top 25th percentile on standardized tests, socioeconomic background remains the most significant predictor of whether they will go on to earn a college degree. According to a 2010 Century Foundation report, high-scoring students from a poor socioeconomic background were only about half as likely to attend a four-year college as their wealthy peers, but five times more likely to attend no college at all. And with the cost of a four-year college education skyrocketing, is it really any wonder that affordability has become a major obstacle for equally intelligent and deserving students? Murray's argument that the wealthiest students dominate selective colleges simply because they are the smartest doesn't stand up to scrutiny. The data below is from the U.S. Department of Education.