I have a skeleton in my closet. Two decades ago I did something that could have threatened my college education and all that has followed. In a moment of youthful indiscretion, I associated with a group - even attaining a high ranking leadership position — that, although I did not appreciate it at the time, placed my future at risk. By the grace of God, I overcame this past and, against all odds, managed to be accepted at a top tier university and law school. My skeleton wears blue corduroy. I was the 1992-1993 State President of the Alabama Future Farmers of America.
I learned today that my leadership of a 23,000 student organization with a quarter million dollar budget, particularly when coupled with a similarly ill-considered officer position in 4-H, made it sixty percent less likely that I would be admitted to a top university. Over at Minding the Campus, Russell Nieli reports on a recent study by Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade and his colleague Alexandria Radford of a number of highly selective public and private universities that demonstrates that while these schools aggressively pursue racial diversity – particularly as to African American students – they appear to have little interest in socio-economic, ideological, and other forms of diversity. In fact, the study revealed that poorer white students, controlling for SAT scores and other factors, were three times less likely to be admitted than more affluent white students. But poverty is only one strike against Caucasian students that is exascerbated by their leadership in the wrong kinds of groups.
Participation in such Red State activities as high school ROTC, 4-H clubs, or the Future Farmers of America was found to reduce very substantially a student’s chances of gaining admission to the competitive private colleges in the NSCE database on an all-other-things-considered basis. The admissions disadvantage was greatest for those in leadership positions in these activities or those winning honors and awards. “Being an officer or winning awards” for such career-oriented activities as junior ROTC, 4-H, or Future Farmers of America, say Espenshade and Radford, “has a significantly negative association with admission outcomes at highly selective institutions.” Excelling in these activities “is associated with 60 or 65 percent lower odds of admission.”
The clear implication of this study is that top university admissions officers view participants in these groups – and particularly those who excel in them — as ill-fitting for their student bodies and their perspectives as unworthy of representation on campus. I dissent. With full disclosure of my pro-FFA bias, with respect to preparing students for life in any career path they may choose, the FFA is the corn gold standard. There are over half a million members in the FFA. Every FFA member is encouraged to develop for themselves a plan to serve their community and earn and invest money in an agriculture related project (for example, raising and selling your own vegetables). How can universities view this kind of entrepreneurship by middle and high school students in a negative light? Unless of course such capitalistic individualism is to be discouraged. My involvement in the FFA was primarily in public speaking and quartet singing. I didn’t excel in FFA public speaking (in retrospect my inclusion of a Boyz2Men soundtrack in my retiring address was not a great choice), but it did break my fear of speaking in front of crowds. And from my quartet singing experience I went on to co-found a UVA Christian a capella singing group that still serves the University today. And my lesson from livestock and land judging (and from showing a sheep at the state fair and having it escape my grasp – resulting in the need to tackle a prize sheep in front of 1,000 spectators) was a profound sense of humility.
These kinds of experiences should make an otherwise qualified student even more appealing to a university in search of a truly representative and diverse student population, not less. The FFA has produced such notable alumni as Jimmy Carter, Bo Jackson, Senator Sam Brownback (a former national vice-president) and numerous other members of Congress and cabinet secretaries, Taylor Swift, Don Henley (yes, that Don Henley – of the Eagles), Jim Davis (creator of Garfield), columnist Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, and Napoleon Dynamite (actually, its writer/director Jared Hess). And yet, university admissions officers evidently view FFA involvement as an indicator of rubeness. I will concede that the blue corduroy FFA jacket (of which I own 3) is not particularly fashionable. But even the act of wearing the FFA official dress builds self assuredness (you have to be self assured when no when else around you will assure you that this is acceptable teenage clothing).
In my experience, FFA members (and this is largely true of 4-H and ROTC as well) value faith, hard work (physical labor included), and self sufficiency – values common to most Americans. Also, in my experience, these “conservative” values are in short supply on most campuses. The Espenshade/Radford study is a telling illustration of the mindset of university administrators, their concept of “diversity,” and a cultural bias that causes them to see the vast majority of America, the “bitter clingers,” as people in need of reforming and not a unique and valuable perspective on life that would benefit their universities.