‘Class warfare is alive’ in college admissions

Directional sign for admissions office under arched university sign.

In new book, a UB education professor defines the method, code and high stakes of today’s college admissions competition

Release Date: August 1, 2014 This content is archived.

Lois Weis.
“Getting into a great college is not just a matter of being smart or being a good student. You have to be good at applying. You have to know how to play the game. ”
Lois Weis, SUNY Distinguished Professor
Department of Educational Leadership and Policy

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The college selection process is the latest battlefield over class advantage, where acceptance to the school of choice not only determines the quality of education but also improves students’ chances of entering the country’s upper-middle class.  So says a team of three education experts led by a University at Buffalo education professor.

“The college application process is a testing ground for the transference of social advantage,” writes Lois Weis, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy in UB’s Graduate School of Education and lead author of an essay published this summer in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“After years of mobilizing all their class-based resources on behalf of their children, parents are vindicated by the acceptance to a prestigious university. And while attending an elite college is by no means a guaranteed ticket to the upper-middle class, it certainly improves your chances.”

The article — coauthored by Kristin Cipollone, a lecturer at Buffalo State College, and Heather Jenkins, director of academic programs and high school preparation at Buffalo Prep, is adapted from their book, “Class Warfare: Class, Race and College Admissions in Top-Tier Secondary Schools,” published by the University of Chicago Press (2014).

“Class Warfare” goes inside the “ivy-yearning” halls of three elite secondary high schools, offering a day-by-day, week-by-week look at the often all-encompassing drive toward college admissions in the country’s top-tier public and private high schools.

Reporting on the authors’ deep and sustained contact with students, parents, counselors, teachers and administrators, the book unveils a fierce class-positioning process at the heart of college admissions. The authors show how students and parents exploit every opportunity and employ every bit of cultural, social and economic capital they can to gain admission into a “most competitive” or “highly competitive plus” university.   

They also show how admissions into these schools can lock in or improve class standing for the next generation. The book is a story of class warfare within a given class, now fiercely negotiated through the college admissions process.

Weis’ analysis points out the uneven opportunity students face when positioning themselves for college application and how this is a benefit or obstacle that often extends throughout their lives. Those who can successfully maneuver the “class warfare” of this admissions competition are more likely to succeed, and those who do not have these advantages will face more obstacles, she says.

The important distinction is how there are many talented students who do not have the advantages of more savvy and affluent families, Weis says.  That’s when the serious board game of college admissions becomes another case of the haves and have-nots, she says, at least when it comes to solving the formula that leads to admission to selective and highly selective colleges.

“We don’t deny how hard these students and parents work, but there is something profoundly undemocratic going on in a nation that prizes upward mobility through merit,” Weiss says.

“That class is central to highly competitive college access at a moment in history when where one goes to college is more and more important with regard to future possibilities is cause for concern for all of us.

“Class warfare is alive and well, and the battles are being waged in classrooms, playgrounds and neighborhoods.

“The research and narrative on what has become one of the most spirited and invested passages of American family life have implications for students from any location on the socio-economic spectrum,” Weiss says.

“It’s a stressful period, especially for students attending top-tier high schools, where competition over name-recognition colleges and prestige runs rampant,” the authors write. “Much preparation and conscious plotting has led to this moment: years of hard work, jam-packed extracurricular calendars, SAT prep and more. Students apply to 10, 15, sometimes even 20 colleges, all strategically selected as they hedge their bets on acceptance.”

It’s the “college frenzy” story we think we are all familiar with, the authors say.  Helicopter parents — the ones who can’t let go — overschedule their children out of an obsessive desire that they make something of themselves.

“We think such parents are maybe a little uptight, perhaps a bit too intense, but we need to think again. The college-application process is about more than just a prestigious name on your resume, or bragging rights, or even a great education. Your very class standing depends on it. Getting into a great college is not just a matter of being smart or being a good student. You have to be good at applying. You have to know how to play the game. And many students — even the brightest ones — never even have access to the rules because of their social class and where they go to high school.

“High schools, in many instances, are class factories, propelling some into the upper middle class while moving others closer to a life of low-wage work,” the authors say. “It’s clear that where one goes to high school increasingly matters in the college-admissions game. Unlike the traditional Horatio Alger myth, where everyone who works hard is seen to have access to the American Dream, climbing the class structure  is now a very specialized skill, one in many ways colonized by exclusive public and private secondary and postsecondary institutions.”

Weis is author, co-author or editor of books and articles that focus on race, class and gender in American schools. Her most recent publications include “Class Reunion: The Remaking of the American White Working Class” (Routledge), “Working Method: Research and Social Justice” (Routledge) and “Beyond Silenced Voices: Class, Race and Gender in United States Schools,” revised edition (SUNY Press).

Weis is past-president of the American Educational Studies Association and is recent past-editor of the American Educational Research Journal, among the highest-ranking English language journals in education in the world. She is a member of the prestigious National Academy of Education.

Weis is a winner of the Outstanding Book Award from the Gustavus Meyers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights in North America. Weis is a seven-time winner of the American Educational Studies Association’s Critic’s Choice Award, given for an outstanding book.

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