College Admissions Corrupted

The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates, by Daniel Golden (Crown)

Commentary | October 20, 2006
Related Issue(s): Higher Education

The Harvard Club of Boston is a rarified institution, billing itself as "a gentle oasis for you and your family to enjoy." The club was founded in 1908 by three alumni in order to "encourage the social, intellectual, and athletic interests of its members, promote the welfare of Harvard University, assist worthy students with financial aid, and foster the Harvard spirit." It was an immediate success, growing to nearly 1,200 members by 1909 and over time spawning numerous affiliates around the world. Today, the original club has spacious facilities, fine dining and a state-of-the-art fitness center. It also has the prestige, selective membership, and interesting conversations over dinner that its members found at the club's namesake. And like Harvard, it is a venue for social advancement, a beautiful environment, and has great athletic facilities. All that's missing is Harvard's focus on education, which is fitting for a social club.

 

But today, elite universities seem to be imitating the club rather than the other way around, according to "The Price of Admission," an important new book by journalist Daniel Golden. Many of the nation's top schools have instituted admissions polices that favor wealth and privilege rather than basing admissions solely on academic merit and enlightened goals like economic and racial diversity.

They are operating more like social clubs than meritocracy-promoting institutions of higher learning, and the result is that a significant number of students—disproportionately from the lower strata of society—are being denied opportunities they greatly deserve.

Golden, a Harvard graduate himself, begins the book by describing how Harvard's admissions policies favor the children of wealthy alumni. Children of the university's "Committee on University Resources," a group of alumni who typically donate $1 million or more to the school, enjoy near-guaranteed admission, according to Golden. The 340 members of the committee who have college-age children have sent 336 students to Harvard. Not bad odds.

The book, which expands on a series of Wall Street Journal articles that won Golden a Pulitzer Prize in 2004, goes on to describe strategies other universities use that warp the admissions process. When Duke University, for example, initiated its effort in the '70s to move into preeminent status, it consciously began to try to recruit a base of rich alumni like that enjoyed by Harvard and Yale. Each year, the development and admissions offices meet to identify wealthy students who based on their merits have been turned down for admission. And each year a significant number of those same students—the children of oil tycoons, software magnates, and other scions of new money— end up being admitted to Duke.  

Brown University chose a different tack, going after the children of the famous instead of the merely rich. Danny DeVito, Kevin Costner, and Hollywood superagent Michael Ovitz are all now happy alumni parents. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist saw his son go to Princeton, his alma mater, despite less-than-stellar credentials at Washington D.C.'s exclusive St. Albans School.  Four other St. Albans students with better credentials applied to Princeton via early decision that year, so Princeton admitted all of them too.

Notre Dame focuses on its hyper-loyal alumni base and sets aside 21 to 24 percent of admission slots each year for legacy students, a strict quota that is expected to be met. The University of Virginia, as well as many other colleges, has tried to kill two birds with one stone with its admissions practices. In its effort to comply with Title IX (the federal law requiring gender equity in college sports and education),  it gives admissions preference to female athletes in sports that are played disproportionately by white, affluent students—sports like polo golf, and crew. And nearly every university gives preference to the children of faculty members, which only adds to the pool of students who are given a leg up over more qualified peers.

Golden began his reporting for the book in 2003 when he was following two high-profile lawsuits challenging affirmative action that were making their way to the Supreme Court. Ironically, the various kinds of admissions preference he documents—for wealth, celebrity, legacy status, athletic prowess, and faculty parentage affirmative action—have collectively turned affirmative action on its head. If one expands the definition of affirmative action to be any set of university policies that provide non-academic preferences for admissions, then affirmative action results in fewer low-income and minority students going to elite colleges, not more. 

Universities don't like to admit this, attested to by the numerous "no comments" and "would not responds" in "The Price of Admission". But if admissions are for sale, why not just draw up a price list and include it in the brochure? The answer is that elite universities want to appear to be at the apex of the virtuous new American meritocracy, while they continue to enjoy the benefits of privilege and class. There's a certain immaturity to this wanting it both ways that's ironic coming from institutions that are older than the nation itself.

Those who do go on the record often play down the preferences of privilege. They say that such factors only come into play in "close calls," providing just a "slight edge" or a "little extra push," for a handful of students. But numerous tales of schools bending over backwards for the children of wealthy donors seem to prove otherwise. One university representative estimated that 60 percent of the freshmen class was set aside for students with some kind of non-academic preference.

Others defenders argue that giving admissions preferences to the children of the wealthy brings more wealth to the institutions that can be used to help poor students—presumably the poor students who weren't turned away because of a spot given to the child of the rich or famous. 

No word is more abused by the defenders of privilege-based admissions than "diversity." Every reluctantly owned-up-to admissions preference imaginable is justified by the alleged virtue of new points of view. Rich people? Social diversity. Wealthy European polo players? International diversity. Michael Ovitz's underachieving son? He apparently had "perspectives and experiences and backgrounds that [were] truly tremendously valuable and unique."

The women's crew coach at the University of Virginia argued that that lower credentials are themselves a valuable source of diversity:

 "It's not just about having the best and brightest students. You should have academic diversity as well. If you have kids who have to struggle, it brings a good mix. That kid may ask a more common-sense question."

College admissions is a zero-sum game, and for every underachieving winner there's a loser left behind. Golden illustrates the irony of using diversity as an excuse for policies that mostly benefit rich white people when he shows who those losers often are: Asians. Lacking wealth, alumni connections, and disadvantaged minority status, meritorious Asians more than anyone are denied the chance to compete for admissions on equal terms. 

The policies now being used to discriminate against Asians were originally put in place by Ivy League schools in the 1920's to deter an influx of high-achieving Jewish students, described by one Yale dean as "greasy grinds." Now Jewish students have been granted entry into the fraternity of white people, and Asians, who Golden and others have dubbed "the new Jews," are the new faceless minority group to be turned away on the flimsiest of pretexts. A fifth-generation Harvard legacy explains: "If you let in too many of one group, it can affect social cohesiveness. At one time, Harvard had too many Asian American students."

Golden is a master of letting such comments speak for themselves. "The Price of Admission" isn't quite as strong in its policy recommendations, which are sensible but not altogether necessary. After years of practicing the fine art of "show, don't tell" journalism, one suspects that telling isn't Golden's forte. 

Golden provides a fairly simple explanation for privileged based-admissions, ascribing them to the self-sustaining impulses of wealth and privilege. This is undoubtedly true, but it doesn't tell the whole story. Wealthy alumni may influence universities, but they don't run them. Golden gives several examples of high-quality, financially sound institutions that admit students purely on merit. So the question is: Why do university leaders and administrators adopt policies that can be fairly described as racist and corrupt?

The answer may lie in the instincts of tribalism and the attractions of a coterie. University leaders repeatedly use essentially social words like "family" and "community" in describing the benefits of legacy admissions and other preferences. Admissions preferences also bring in money, which is useful for buying really great places to live and work. Prestigious places filled with the right kind of people. Diverse enough to be interesting, but not so diverse that the word "minority" loses its meaning. Blessed with beautiful buildings and an array of sports and entertainment. Places to be one of a select group. Gentle oases.

Places, in other words, like the Harvard Club. But social clubs don't pretend to be dedicated to education, service, and scholarship. That's the difference between the Harvard Club and Harvard—or it should be. With clarity and moral force, Golden shows that our greatest universities have been sacrificing their highest ideals on behalf of base pursuits unworthy of their names.

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