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What the Supreme Court Decision on College Admissions Means and Doesn't Mean.


Far be it for me to ever find myself in agreement with a legal decision made by a Supreme Court shaped by jurists nominated by Donald Trump, but I think yesterday’s ruling which prohibits college admission decisions based on race needs to be considered from a different perspective than the way the decision is being discussed by both sides.

A story in this morning’s WaPo has the kids of color lamenting their chances of getting into a top school, now that schools like Harvard and Stanford can’t give an admission break to applicants who are Asians or blacks. A white kid from Maryland, on the other hand, thinks the decision will allow to consider applying to the Ivy League instead of the local state school where he was planning to apply.

Meanwhile, what I think needs to be considered is how higher education has changed over the last few years, and why these changes may make the whole issue of getting into college and the so-called ‘value’ of a college education very different from what the Supreme Court appears to have had in mind.

So, here I go again, telling a story about what life was like when I was a kid, but in this case the perspective really needs to be said and understood.

I started the 7th grade in September 1956, in a New York City public elementary school. The school had three, 7th-grade sections with roughly 30 kids in each. One section, the section where I was placed, was for the kids who would go to the local academic high school and have a chance to apply for admission to college in 1958.

Maybe 10 percent of the kids in my academic high school would actually go onto to college, maybe even a smaller percentage than that. In 1960, maybe 7 percent of Americans had completed a four-year college degree; at most maybe 10 percent had experienced any college education at all. (As of 2021, half the Americans over age 25 had a four-year college degree.)

In the second section in my elementary school were the kids who would go to the local vocational high school, which we now call a technical-vocational high school because most of the factory work which used to be done by hand is now computer-assisted, which is what the word ‘technical’ means.

Then there were the real dummies in the third section, who if they were boys ended up with jobs shoveling coal at the Con Ed power plant or working on the assembly plant at the local factory owned by Proctor and Gamble where they made Ivory Snow soap. The girls in this same section usually got knocked up by the time they were fourteen or fifteen, and they all got married because this was a Catholic neighborhood, and everyone got married sooner or later in the St. Rita’s parish church.

Today, of course, ‘tracking’ is no longer allowed in public schools, the watchwords being ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ both in brains and race. And my old neighborhood, where we were the only Jewish family, is now primarily an Orthodox Jewish community with a big yeshiva operating down the street from the house in which I used to live.

Nobody in my old neighborhood even thought of going anywhere to college except for a few who took a couple of courses at the local community college which would then get them qualified for a ‘city’ job. A ‘city’ job meant job security and a pension. Otherwise, you were, as we used to say, shit outta’ luck.

The Ivy League? Who ever heard of the Ivy League? Schools like Harvard and Yale not only didn’t recruit kids from my neighborhood and certainly didn’t look to enroll anyone from what we used to politely refer to as the ‘minorities’ or the ‘element’ in less polite terms.

That’s now all gone. The Asian kids who sued Harvard because they were passed over in favor of some black kids don’t need an Ivy League degree to end up running the country’s major corporations, the insurance conglomerates, or the banks.

An Ivy League degree will help you wind up as an editor at The New Yorker Magazine or some other highfalutin quasi-academic gig, but so what? The local convenience-store chain is right now paying $90,000 a year plus bennies to deliver fuel to their retail outlets. To qualify, you need to pass a drug test and have a CDL, a high school diploma isn’t required as long as you aren’t too dumb to be taught how to operate one of their fuel-carrying trucks.

Do two years in a community college, finish with a B average and then switch to a four-year state school where you can earn your bachelor’s degree but pay the community-college tuition rate. Major in computing, apply to a financial institution and with your four-year degree you can qualify for a management-track job. You’ll start at 70K a year with a chance to move up.

If financial services take a hit the way it did in 2007-2008, it’s the managers who decide which employees get shit-canned, the managers keep their jobs.

Harvard can’t compete with jobs like that, which is why applications to the so-called ‘top’ schools have of late levelled off or slightly declined. College education in my lifetime has gone from being an exclusive social experience for the upper class to a near-universal requirement for any decent job.

Which means that lying awake at night worrying because your skin color no longer gives you a leg up in competing for admission to the Ivy Leagues is now no longer what it used to mean.

The world changes – thank God.

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