Elitism in the Name of Access

Correction: I carelessly misstated the size of the Cooke Foundation’s endowment in billions of dollars instead of millions. It was not my intent to do so and I apologize for the egregious error. I have corrected the amounts below. Also, the market value of the endowment has changed; I have also made that correction. Thanks to David Egner of the Cooke Foundation for pointing this error out. I should have been more careful.

Providing access to college for all students who desire it has long been a worthy goal for schools, organizations, and colleges themselves. Why wouldn’t it be? We want our young people to be as prepared as possible for the challenges that continually face us as the future inexorably bears down upon up.

Most efforts in this area focus on finding a relatively tiny proportion of students, the “diamonds in the rough” deemed college ready but lacking the resources to follow through. They may have no guidance counselor, lack access to information, or simply lack the money they’ll need to attend. As worthy as these efforts are (at Chicago Scholars, I created and led very successful workshops, handbooks and other materials and activities for these students, their parents, and their mentors) they unintentionally create a significant divide in the educational world of these students.

Many organizations and even schools focus on the “gifted and talented” students who may thrive despite poor conditions. They are identified as early as possible and introduced to mentors, advisors, and programs that will help them get through school and to college. Many require that students have certain minimum GPAs and test scores to participate, and of course, students have to be made aware of the programs to apply. So the restrictions of college admission are transplanted to these organizations, once again limiting access while attempting to broaden it.


Still from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis with the Maiden from the underground world pleading for its children.

Other students who may suffer the consequences of poor educational and social conditions more severely are by default left behind. There’s no telling how many students from underserved schools could benefit even from the encouragement to do well if they are identified early enough, regardless of whether they are “gifted and talented” or not. In the name of “access” and with all best intentions, many organizations practice an early form of social sorting as early as eighth grade.

In setting up his system of public education in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson proposed a strict hierarchy, beginning in grammar school. From there, the winnowing process would continue:

Of the boys thus sent in any one year, trial is to be made at the grammar schools one or two years, and the best genius of the whole selected, and continued six years, and the residue dismissed. By this means twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed, at the public expence, so far as the grammar schools go.

Thomas Jefferson on Public Education, Part 1   by George H. Smith

Jefferson made no bones about where public monies should be spent: on those who showed the most promise and had best achieved at their schools. Those who could pass the “trial” would be rewarded by being educated at public expense. The “residue” would be left on the rubbish heap, presumably to become laborers, farmers, and so on (an odd image for a man who considered farming and agriculture to be the backbone of American life and morality).

Many years later, the term “talented tenth” referred to the goal of establishing black colleges in the South to train black teachers and elites. W. E. B. DuBois adopted the term to describe the likelihood of one in ten black men (women were not yet included)

becoming leaders of their race in the world, through methods such as continuing their education, writing books, or becoming directly involved in social change.

It was important to encourage recently freed slaves and their descendants to aspire to leadership positions to lead the race out of its former servitude. The “talented tenth” was a goal, not a limit.

Even at the time, however, Henry Lyman Morehouse, the white liberal who coined the term in 1896 and for whom Morehouse College is named, realized the phrase reeked of elitism and sought to mitigate it. On the PBS website is his reservation about the term:

Obviously concerned that his argument would appear to be elitist, which it nakedly and unapologetically was — like Du Bois’ elaboration of it seven years later — Morehouse was quick to add that he was not unmindful of the importance of the contributions of the other so-called “nine-tenths”: “Without disparagement of faithful men of moderate abilities, it may be said that in all ages the mighty impulses that have propelled a people onward in their progressive career, have proceeded from a few gifted souls … men of thoroughly disciplined minds, of sharpened perceptive faculties, trained to analyze and to generalize; men of well-balanced judgments and power of clear and forceful statement.” The talented tenth man, Morehouse concludes, “is an uncrowned king in his sphere.”

We can argue that Jefferson, Morehouse, and DuBois saw the positives of this culling as far outweighing the negatives of consigning the less talented 90% of the population to using their “moderate abilities” as well as they could. Especially at a time when African Americans were beginning to emerge from slavery, it was important to find those who could lead their fellows into the higher reaches of American society, no matter the difficulties.

However, as the United States has essentially reached a point of universal education (no matter how inequitably it may be delivered) the emphasis on providing a “talented tenth” with specific advantages while letting the rest fend for themselves ultimately isn’t sustainable for the country as a whole. It provides lifeboats to specific individuals while the rest drown in dark, freezing waters. The systemic problems that damage every child, in other words, are left unaddressed.


Still from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The privileged cavort in a garden of earthly delights.

Unfortunately, even the best intentioned organizations still rely on a “talented tenth” ideology to address these concerns instead of challenging the system itself. A recent article in the Orlando Sentinel headlined “We Can’t Let Any Gifted Kids Slip Through The Cracks” outlines the efforts of the National Association for Gifted Children to “change minds and attitudes, change policies, and change practices when it comes to supporting gifted learners.”

One of its efforts revolves around creating a “Giftedness Knows No Boundaries” campaign that “will shine a light on gifted and talented children, and be a precursor to changing policies and practices, all of which will ensure these children are discovered, challenged and given the support they need as they strive to reach their personal best.” Presumably these lucky children will be “raked from the rubbish” and provided with educations befitting their genius, while the rest will have to make do with what they have. But why should an effort like this be only about those identified as “gifted and talented”? And if giftedness knows no bounds, why limit your search?

One organization that does plenty of raking is the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, “a private, independent foundation established in 2000 to advance the education of exceptionally promising students who have financial need.” Its $640 million endowment enables it to choose not just the talented 10th but the talented 10th of a 10th as it sifts through thousands of applications from hopeful but underserved students each year. Over its history the Foundation reports it has awarded more than $152 million to nearly 2,200 high-achieving students from low-income families.

This number sounds (and is) very impressive. For individual students who win the award (after an extensive selection process that makes Harvard look like an open admission college), it’s a platinum lifeboat, with the possibility of paying all college and even graduate school expenses as well as other education-related costs. For the rest, though, the flotsam will have to do.


Lithograph of the Titanic sinking.

(Some simple math shows that over 16 years the Foundation has accepted an average of 138 students per year from thousands of applicants, spending an average of $69,000 per student for an average outlay per year of $9,500,000. Quite luxurious for the lucky ones. To be fair, the Foundation does other things as well, but in light of its endowment, this expenditure seems both paltry and underutilized.)

In a recent article on the website the74million, Harold O. Levy, the executive director of the Cooke Foundation, repeats all the old saws about how schools need to get better, while lamenting the under-funding of education. “We must figure out a way to do better, because failing to meet our responsibility to children today will cause irreparable harm to them and our nation far into the future.” This remarkably musty observation coming from the head of a foundation with two-thirds of a billion dollars in endowment funds dedicated to supporting only a tiny fraction of students is supremely ironic.


Still from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis showing the leader of the upper world where the privileged few live.

He lectures schools as if they were hoarding funds while stating the obvious:

Schools need to increase spending to get the best teachers, hold down class sizes so students get the individual attention they need, hire more and better-trained counselors, get the up-to-date books and supplies students require, run year-round classes for the weakest students and improve or replace aging school buildings.

And while he tells states and localities to “bite the bullet and raise taxes or find funds elsewhere in their budgets” for school funding, he surely knows these efforts have been consistently voted down or been stymied in just about every one of those areas. In Chicago, where I live, public schools are being starved by the state (which also has entered its second budget-less year under its billionaire Republican governor) and the city, which has had to raise taxes significantly just to pay into unhonored pension funds for public employees, including teachers. Mr. Levy, once the chancellor of the New York City School system, surely knows better than to repeat bromides that were cliches 30 years ago, like “We must figure out a way to do better, because failing to meet our responsibility to children today will cause irreparable harm to them and our nation far into the future.” Well, what do you know! And yet, here we are.

The problem, ultimately, isn’t that we’re not finding enough of the talented tenth to lift from the “rubbish heap,” but that we have consigned so many of our youth to such a huge rubbish heap to begin with. Providing lifeboats for the talented, the “gritty,” and the purely lucky, while terrific for those individuals, still leaves their peers floating in the darkness of an Arctic night clinging to whatever hope they can find. Sanctimonious reiterations about the terrible condition of education, especially when you have the resources to do more about it, reflect a lack of willingness to attack the problems at the root.

Much of that would require  political activity prohibited to foundations; however, funding research and even looking for ways to build luxury liners instead of expensive lifeboats so more lives could be saved through education and support, might be better ways to address the problems we face. Without the political will, however, the left out 90% will continue to sink. Relying on discovering just the “talented tenth” each year only prolongs most students’ agony while doing nothing to ameliorate it.







About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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7 Responses to Elitism in the Name of Access

  1. Lessa Scherrer says:

    I’m not sure I’m following your argument. You rebuke Harold Levy for “sanctimonious reiterations about the terrible conditions of education” and then argue that gifted education advocacy leaves 90% of students to “sink,” and that the Cooke Foundation should be using their endowment to save all students from the presumably icy waters of public education.

    And what of the gifted students bobbing around in those waters? Gifted children learn and experience the world differently. Why should their special educational needs be ignored simply because they are outliers on the other end of the Bell curve? Is it equitable for gifted students in under-resourced schools to have their intellect whither and die simply because they are not white, wealthy and suburban? I don’t think so.

    Perhaps the answer here is to require all teachers learn how to teach gifted students-most educators graduate without so much as a nod to gifted education, or, worse, with a learned bigotry against these students. I don’t agree with the “Disneyland”-type of gifted enrichment where most of the program is fun field trips and experiential learning. Those types of lessons enrich all the students in their classrooms and schools. But students should be supported to go as far and fast as they want to in school, and right now that is just not happening.


    • Will Dix says:

      My argument is not to ignore “gifted” students but to be more concerned with educating and elevating ALL students instead of focusing on the so-called “cream of the crop.” I’ve worked with some schools they happen to be charters) that specifically and overtly separate the “college ready” from “everyone else” even though they present themselves as “college prep” schools. The “college ready” kids get all kinds of support, while the others get just the basics-and they all know who is who. If this kind of sorting happens early enough, what does that tell bright kids who might be late bloomers or who really could use a little extra help to spark them. The search for G & T kids, as it’s currently structured by many organizations, essentially repeats Jefferson’s methodology, to the detriment of the vast majority of students.


  2. Coriander Reisbord says:

    A quick note: I totally agree with most of this, but I’ve got two kids in a reasonably good public school system, 5th and 7th grade, and I can say that the bright but average one is actually getting a better educational experience than the gifted one, in that the normal one is challenged daily to master the material while the gifted one has never had to put in any effort at all and thus hasn’t learned how to do so. My average child is learning how to learn, in other words, how to persist, how to analyze a task to find the entry point if it seems intimidating at first glance, how to survive not knowing the answer. All great skills for whatever comes next for her. The gifted kid in my family hasn’t learned any of this. She stares out the window, unobtrusively checked out, and exceeds grade level requirements every term without having actually had to apply herself in any meaningful way, bored, adrift, entirely disengaged. When faced with something she can’t already do effortlessly, she falls apart.

    I realize this isn’t quite what you were addressing. Our school district is just fine. The class sizes are small, the teachers are credentialed, the parents are engaged. I’m not advocating for a gifted curriculum in order to justify rationing out adequate education to only a handful of kids, to pluck my gifted child out of a substandard and inadequate school, and screw all those other kids who don’t make the cut. That is too often how it’s used, yes: public schools are necessarily exactly as racist and elitist as all the other institutions in our society, and we see that in our school district as well, I freely admit that. But I want to complicate the argument a little with my own family’s lived experience, which is that there are gifted kids out there who need programs addressing their specific educational needs as much as kids with learning difficulties do, if they’re to have a truly educational experience in school. Not so that they can proceed to an elite high school, and then on to an elite college, and bolster the majority’s faith that the cream does really rise to the top so systemic change isn’t necessary, but so that they can actually have the learning experiences they need to keep up with their non-gifted peers.


    • Will Dix says:

      Thanks so much for your comment. I’ve also worked with gifted kids who should be being challenged; instead they’ve been ignored and become bored and sometimes even disruptive. My argument is not against doing what can be done for those kids, but that the focus seems to be more on separating them from the “rubbish.” I believe that there are plenty of kids out there who are bright (I’ve met many of them) but have had neither the opportunity nor the encouragement to do well in school because they’ve already been identified as “not college material.” I hope your daughter’s school recognizes the issue she has and provides her some good challenges. Your comment about your gifted child falling apart when she can’t do something effortlessly reminded me of a book that might be helpful. It’s called “The Overachievers” The Secret Lives of Driven Kids,” by Alexandra Robins. One of the students she profiles has the same reaction in high school. It may be only tangential to your daughter’s situation but I thought the similarity was interesting. You can find a lot more recommendations on my blog page “Resources Worth Consulting.”


  3. Terri Forman says:

    Thank you for this article that speaks directly to our mission at First Graduate and the students we work with. Our students are the ones that are “average” and will become the first in their families to graduate from college. They know that by doing so, they will help move their families out of poverty. In San Francisco, where 8 of 10 students have parents who did not graduate from college, this is a social justice issue whose borders are zip code, economics, ethnicity, and access.


    • Will Dix says:

      Hi Terri- Thanks so much for your comment and the information about First Graduate. Congratulations on your efforts to reach more than the “elite” students. Inspiring students of whatever ability should be a major goal for all of us. I admire your commitment.


  4. Matt Collins says:

    What to do about the 90%, indeed, especially when a freight train of cheap automation threatens to wipe out a lot of jobs millions of people reply upon for fulfillment and income? Yes, we should support the gifted and talented, but educating everyone else for the very different and possibly more limited opportunities ahead is a far greater and more urgent problem. None of the possible solutions that come to mind - e.g. more vocational and technical training options - seem up to the task.


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