In February of this year, scholars released an analysis of a massive data set of 30 million college students born between 1980 and 1991, that included their economic backgrounds, college attended, and post-college earnings. The findings provide us with an opportunity to revisit a long-standing concern with justice and equal opportunity in higher education.
There has been much attention in recent years to whether lower income students are adequately represented at selective colleges, especially elite colleges. Some of those colleges have made serious efforts to admit a higher proportion of lower income students. The public discourse around these efforts generally operates with a tacit theory of equality of opportunity—that equality of opportunity entails that access to higher rungs on the existing hierarchy of colleges and universities be less dependent on a student’s financial resource background, and closer to being based on “merit,” however conceived. This is a milder version of the philosophic position taken by Rawls and other political philosophers, that such access be entirely independent of resource background and dependent only on talent and effort.