Trust Fund U.

AuthorKahlenberg, Richard D.
PositionEvan Mandery's "Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us"

Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us by Evan Mandery New Press, 369 pp.

In its defense of affirmative action, Harvard has cast itself as a force for social equality. But the Ivy League's true function is to consolidate the power of the wealthy.

In January 2021, when the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would hear an appeal challenging Harvard's use of racial preferences in college admissions, the institution's president, Larry Bacow, sent a note to the university community positioning Harvard as a righteous champion of social justice. The Court, he wrote, was threatening Harvard's ability "to create diverse campus communities that enrich education for all."

But as the City University of New York professor Evan Mandery shows in his lively and trenchant new book, Poison Ivy, Harvard's lofty pronouncements about racial inclusion elide an important part of the story: The school does not remotely reflect America's class diversity. Unless the country were to magically transform itself to have 20 times as many rich people as poor people, as Harvard does, the school will remain a highly unrepresentative bastion of privilege.

Poison Ivy arrives at a time when elite college admission practices are under a microscope. The litigation in the Supreme Court over affirmative action unearthed a treasure trove of data revealing in vivid detail how a variety of university practices--from legacy preferences to the preferences for the children of faculty--tilt admissions toward the wealthy. Mandery takes full advantage of this new information as he considers how the Ivy League reproduces inequality by grooming wealthy kids for the sorts of careers that will make them still wealthier.

Mandery presents his indictment with an appealing blend of storytelling and hard data. And he adroitly draws on his firsthand experiences with elite and less selective education. Mandery attended Harvard College and Harvard Law School in the late 1980s and early 1990s, where he met unimaginably rich students and witnessed graduates line up to represent the interests of America's wealthiest institutions. But for 20 years, he has been teaching a largely working-class population of students at CUNY's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where 60 percent of graduates go to work for nonprofits or government.

Mandery's vantage point helps him detect when elite universities are blowing smoke. Harvard tries to obscure its lack of socioeconomic diversity, for example, by highlighting that it provides a free ride to any student from a family making less than $65,000 a year, which is, to be sure, a good thing. But Harvard's story about generous financial aid, writes Mandery, is "as misleading as those television commercials from Shell and other energy giants that advertise their commitment to developing clean energy alternatives--not a lie, exactly, but fundamentally misleading." Precious few students have the chance to take advantage of the offer: Just 3 percent of Harvard students come from the bottom 20 percent by income, while 15 percent come from the top 1 percent of earners. Mandery notes that at elite colleges, students from the top 1 percent by income have a 77 times greater...

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