Affirmative action in college admissions based on race/ethnicity has been common since the end of the 1960s. It rather quickly was discovered to benefit primarily blacks and Latinos from above average homes.
So, slowly, the rationalization for affirmative action was rewritten by the Supreme Court from original assertions of fairness, anti-discrimination, and reparations for slavery and other past sins, which, presumably, diminish over time, to “diversity,” which we never ever can get enough of. Sure, the Rwandan U.N. ambassador’s granddaughter, whose white mother graduated from Wellesley, doesn’t really have any moral claim for special privileges in the United States, but that’s not the point, the point is that it’s good for the white kids in class to enjoy the fruits of diversity, such as the current Black Autumn on campus.
But let’s try putting together a new argument for a new kind of affirmative action in college admissions targeting the previously untargeted; kids who are a lot smarter than their parents. I have a theory that our society tends to under-invest in the smart kids of not so smart parents. If you are looking for a group for colleges to recruit more intensively among, this would likely have a higher payoff than more traditional affirmative action categories.
The basics of The Bell Curve suggest that tens or hundreds of thousands of children born each year will be significantly smarter than the average of their parents. But because they show up fairly randomly in the population, they have been ignored (in Sapir-Whorf terms, we barely even have a name for them) because they don’t fit into the usual identity politics categories. They are a little like lefthanders, a common minority but too randomly distributed a group to develop political mojo. (For example, major league baseball discriminates 100% against lefthanded catchers, but even in a world obsessed with teasing out instances of discrimination, nobody cares).
One thing that has been widely remarked is that applying to college has gotten more complicated in terms of competitive strategizing. This may well be overblown, but it’s a widespread social stereotype beloved by Tiger Parents and feared by Sloth Parents that getting into a “good” college is immensely complicated.
This tends to become self-fulfilling.
Research by Caroline Hoxby of Stanford has discovered that the biggest concentration of overlooked smart kids that colleges should recruit harder are, unsurprisingly, exactly whom the conventional wisdom doesn’t expect them to be: male, white, flyover states, maybe from broken homes.
Why is the conventional wisdom’s expectation wrong that the real most overlooked demographic shouldn’t be the beneficiaries of White Male Privilege but should be the gay black Latinas from East Coast? Because it’s the conventional wisdom, obviously. The universities have been tilling those more ideologically congenial fields intensively for 40 or 50 years now, so they long ago hit diminishing marginal returns in Closing The Gap. But they can’t admit that, so they are constantly trumpeting: the theory can’t be wrong, comrades, so we must redouble our efforts!
Obviously, nobody respectable is going to invest in explicit special preferences for white boys from Flyover Country. But perhaps we can operationalize the Hoxby-Avery findings as calling for special investment in children who are smarter than their parents.
But is my theory correct that those are the kids most likely to be underinvested in relative to their potential? We should test it to find out.
Here’s a new research agenda: We probably now have multiple ways for social scientists to track two generations of achievement relative to test scores. For example, the 1979 National Longitudinal Study of Youth, from which much of The Bell Curve, was derived, is following thousands of children of female members of the original sample. This public database available to legit professional social scientists has cognitive test data for two mother and child, along with life events such as type of college they attend. If the average NLSY panelist was 18 in 1979, she’d be 54 today in 2015, with a majority of her children already having reached the age to apply to college.
So my theory that our society is underinvesting in the smart children of less smart parents could be tested thoroughly over the next few years using NLSY data.
I throw a lot of research ideas out there in the hopes that academics will pick them up and carry them out. So don’t feel any need to credit me for the idea if you want to go ahead and study this. I just like knowledge.