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By David J. Leonard | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Monday, October 1, 2012.

The media focus on student debt, on congressional battles over student loans, and the scarcity of jobs for college graduates obscures the racial and class dynamics that define America’s colleges and universities. With the public discourse surrounding the unfairness of affirmative action for Whites, the threat that Ethnic Studies represents to (White) America, and the absence of “White student unions” in college campuses, public discussions re-imagine Whiteness as precarious, and Whites as victim and at the frontlines of a changing educational landscape. Despite the daily lamenting of the state and future of America’s White students, particularly those with middle and upper-middle incomes, college campuses are still White. In fact, Whites, particularly those whose parents are part of the top 5% of the income distribution, continue to reap the benefits of privilege in (1) admittance, (2) scholarship, and (3) treatment. Let's not get things twisted here; these colleges and universities are in America, so yes the rules of the game (racism, sexism, classism) do apply.

In 2005, less than one in eight youth from the poorest 25% of society would enroll at a 4-year college university within 2 years of high school graduation. According to Peter Schmidt, author of The Color of Money,“a rich child has about 25 times as much a chance as a poor one of someday enrolling in a college rated as highly selective or better.” Colleges’ overreliance on SAT scores, heightens cultural bias, and the unequal advantages resulting from SAT prep classes, which have proven to benefit Whites and the middle-class.

In addition, because admissions give credence to a school’s reputation (which cannot be seen apart from segregation, and racial and class inequality), the rules and the game of college are set up to advantage Mitt Romney’s America: the already privileged. Worse yet, the hegemony of the narratives of meritocracy and the illusion of diversity—which Lani Guiner describes as “a leaf to camouflage privilege”—obscure the endless privileges afforded to the members of middle and upper middle class White America, before they ever step foot on a college campus.

This is evident as we look at the racial and class stratification of student loans and other forms of aid. The Chronicle of Higher Education found that“colleges with more than $500 million in their endowments…served disproportionately few students from families with incomes low enough to qualify for federal Pell Grants.” In other words, the money that makes college a possibility is funneled to those whose families often have the requisite dollars to make college a reality. Schmidt tells us that “[j]ust 40 percent of the financial aid money being distributed by public colleges is going to students with documented financial need,” adding that “[m]ost such money is being used to offer merit-based scholarships or tuition discounts to potential recruits who can enhance a college's reputation, or appear likely to cover the rest of their tuition tab and to donate down the road.” Despite the widely circulated, albeit factually false ideas about students of color and scholarships, the vast majority of scholarship money finds its way into the pocket of White students. Tim Wise makes this clear:

It is simply false that scholarships for people of color crowd out monies for White students. According to a national study by the General Accounting Office, less than four percent of scholarship money in the U.S. is represented by awards that consider race as a factor at all, while only 0.25 percent (one quarter of one percent) of all undergrad scholarship dollars come from awards that are restricted to persons of color alone (1). In other words, Whites are fully capable of competing for and receiving any of the other monies— roughly 99.75 percent of all scholarship funds out there for college. Although this GAO study was conducted in the mid-’90s, there is little reason to expect that the numbers have changed since then. If anything, increasing backlash to affirmative action and fear of lawsuits brought by conservatives against such efforts would likely have further limited such awards as a percentage of national scholarships.

Second, it is also false that large numbers of students of color receive the benefits of race-based scholarships. In truth, only 3.5 percent of college students of color receive any scholarship even partly based on race, suggesting that such programs remain a pathetically small piece of the financial aid picture (2). So when Mr. Bohannon walks around campus and sees students of color, he may believe them all to be wards of some race-based preference scheme; yet the evidence suggests that at least 96.5 percent of them received no race-based scholarship at all.

The money is there for White students, particularly those who already have class advantages. From access to prep classes to performative enhancing drugs, from legacies to the “donation path,” America’s colleges and universities are overpopulated by Whites, by the sons and daughters of the elite, not because of some level of intelligence, the requisite values, or some all-powerful work ethic, but because of the power of privilege and money.

This points to a clear conclusion: because of access to money, prep classes, or mere connections, that is, because of privilege, America’s colleges and universities, particularly the elite schools, are overpopulated with White students lacking the requisite skills to succeed within these spaces. It is no wonder that America’s colleges and universities are increasingly the educational weight stations for the ill prepared and ill qualified. Returning to Peter Schmidt

Researchers with access to closely guarded college admissions data have found that, on the whole, about 15 percent of freshmen enrolled at America's highly selective colleges are White teens who failed to meet their institutions' minimum admissions standards.

Five years ago, two researchers working for the Educational Testing Service, Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose, took the academic profiles of students admitted into 146 colleges in the top two tiers of Barron's college guide and matched them up against the institutions' advertised requirements in terms of high school grade point average, SAT or ACT scores, letters of recommendation, and records of involvement in extracurricular activities. White students who failed to make the grade on all counts were nearly twice as prevalent on such campuses as black and Hispanic students who received an admissions break based on their ethnicity or race.

Who are these mediocre White students getting into institutions such as Harvard, Wellesley, Notre Dame, Duke, and the University of Virginia? A sizable number are recruited athletes who, research has shown, will perform worse on average than other students with similar academic profiles, mainly as a result of the demands their coaches will place on them.

A larger share, however, are students who gained admission through their ties to people the institution wanted to keep happy, with alumni, donors, faculty members, administrators, and politicians topping the list.

Given this reality, should it be a surprise that high school and college students, are popping Adderall like they are tic tacks. Is the pressure to succeed to not only fulfill the expectations of a White middle class sensibility, but to thrive amid challenging conditions?

It is interesting that in popular culture and popular media, we hear so much about students of color, those who supposedly are the beneficiaries of affirmative action, who struggle yet, it is White students who often lack the require scores one supposedly needs to succeed in higher education. Makes me wonder if that is leading to a proliferation of drug use among students trying to find ways to succeed. Between 2002 and 2005, sales of Adderall increased by 3,100%; in 2011; 34.5% admitted to using this illegal drug. Treated as little more than a performance enhancing drugs, colleges are rife for drug abuse. According to Linda Carroll, the problem runs deep:

At colleges across America, students are becoming addicted to a popular prescription drug — not because they’re trying to get high, but because they hope to get smarter. The drug, Adderall, is normally prescribed for kids with attention deficit disorder. But some college kids are taking the medication because it helps them focus and pull all-nighters.

One‘A’ student at one of the nation’s top tier colleges explained the appeal of the pills kids call “study buddies.”

When I’m on Adderall and I’m looking at the textbook I can forget about everything else around me,” she told NBC News’ Amy Robach, in a report aired on TODAY. “I figured if everyone else is doing it, why shouldn’t I get the advantage?”

Another student, “Mike,” who asked that his real name be withheld, elaborated. “It’s given me the boost to work non-stop for 10 hours a day,” he explained.“Baseball players take steroids to be the best and students take Adderall to be the best. It’s steroids for school.”

Like football games, partying, and cheating, drugs are part and parcel of today’s college experience. It is an epidemic, which can be partially explained by changes in technology, also reflecting the larger conditions of today’s colleges and universities. “Yes, cheating is rampant, and for teachers the game of catch-up never stops,” notes Mark Bauerlein. “Part of the problem stems from the high-stakes system, where a bad grade can jeopardize chances for medical school. For the ‘overachievers,’cheating isn’t a vice. It’s a survival skill.” The work of Peter Schmidt and others points to how the “overachievers” are often White. Should it surprise us that cheating has become part and parcel with the college experience?

According Susan D. Blum, in My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture, close to 70 percent of students admitted lifting material directly from the Internet without citation or other forms of attribution; 75 percent admitted to engage in cheating. Copying and pasting, purchasing papers online, and other forms of cheating have become the new normal. Keeping tests on file at fraternity houses and other forms of academic dishonesty are commonplace. Look at Harvard, where 125 out of 250 students enrolled in Introduction to Congress (Spring 2012) have been accused of cheating. Yet, the media, including The New York Times, have framed cheating in college campuses around athlete culture and even blackness (with picture of African American basketball players as leads to the story, for instance; see Deadspin piece for further evidence). The cheating scandal in Harvard is indicative of a culture that admits Whites—wealthy Whites—into the Ivy doors irrespective of their readiness or deservedness.

What does all of this reveal? What does the SAT scandal, where in New Jersey students hired someone to take the test for them, tells us about who is and isn’t prepared for higher education? What does this tell us about race, class, and higher education? Whether this represents the cause of the persistent inequality within higher education (greater access to prep course, performance enhancing drugs, money to pay for exam takers) or whether these destructive and harmful behaviors result from the unearned privileges of admission into America’s elite colleges and universities, remains in question. What is clear is that race and class matters.

While the national press and politicians lament the status and predicament facing (White) college graduates, let us not forget the broader issues at work here. It is revealing that while the face of the aggrieved student is often White, and while the narrative of the student left behind is White, they are not the faces of those students who are getting admitted to universities without “deserving” to be there. Whites are not the face of having easy access to financial aid; they are not the face of those who can afford to and are using drugs without being busted; they are not the face who pop performance enhancing pills; they are not the face of cheating scandals. Yet, instead Whiteness remains the face of victimized student who deserves to be in college, who deserves to secure the American Dream. If that is the case, I think we need to return to a basic lesson: a more accurate definition of "deserve."

David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums. His work explores the political economy of popular culture, examining the interplay between racism, state violence, and popular representations through contextual, textual, and subtextual analysis. Leonard’s latest book After Artest: Race and the Assault on Blackness was just published by SUNY Press.

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