Skip to content
  1. Latest News

Psychology Today: How Elite Colleges Divide Us and What We Can Do About It

From Psychology Today: In Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us,* CUNY Professor Evan Mandery lays out compelling evidence that Ivy League universities—along with peer institutions such as Stanford, MIT, Chicago, Duke, and Georgetown—propagate segregation and income inequality. Mandery argues that these colleges hoard opportunities in their massive endowments, student resources, and access to elite careers. In turn, he says, American parents hoard opportunities for their children by turning their communities and schools into mostly White enclaves, filled with college-application advantages such as AP courses, test prep centers, and club lacrosse teams (Mandery really has it out for lacrosse). Even if you believe this last sentence describes a wealthy, out-of-control minority, their behavior still affects the educational experience of every child in this country. When Poison Ivy is released on October 25, you can decide for yourself whether you agree about elite universities doing more harm than good for our society. However, what I found most memorable is that Mandery ultimately argues not for sweeping reforms, but for incremental changes that collectively could close these opportunity and income gaps. In that way, I sensed a kindred spirit and fellow advocate for, as President Obama would say, “better is good.” And as a behavioral scientist, I wholeheartedly agree with Mandery that we should strive for more “one percent solutions.” One percent solutions “Zack Cooper, a health care economist at Yale…found that [an insurance company] could save $1 billion a year—about 1 percent of their spending—if they just had patients get [lower-limb MRIs] at the place closest to their home. After his speech, an executive complimented his speech, but said they wanted measures that would save them 15 percent, not 1 percent.” Poison Ivy does not mention the terms “behavioral science,” “behavioral economics,” or “nudging.” But in Chapter 19, Mandery seems to choose sides in the debate about whether tweaks to how we communicate with people or construct their environments—interventions that often amount to one percent solutions—are worth our time, energy, and investment. For example, professors Nick Chater and George Loewenstein recently argued that nudge interventions have “led behavioral public policy astray,” distracting researchers from developing larger, systems-level reforms that could produce a 15 percent impact. In education, specifically, they warn: “There is the real danger that well-intentioned research providing a false hope of radical change from [nudging] interventions undermines public pressure for fundamental systemic change.” Mandery explicitly rejects this all-or-nothing perspective. “If the standard is perfection, all is lost. But if the goal is to take lots of one percent steps, virtuous proposals abound.” For example, his recommendations for improving college admissions include:
  • “Top class rank” policies, in which college admissions are based entirely on class rank (such as is done at the University of Texas at Austin)
  • Elite colleges partnering with their local communities, school districts, and community colleges to bolster all educational opportunities in their area and create dedicated pathways into their hallowed halls (Mandery notes Clark’s example in Worcester, Massachusetts)
  • Prioritizing admissions for working-class students in the same way elite colleges do for athletes, legacies, and early access applicants
  Read more at Psychology Today.