The Best Education Money Can Buy

Reviewed by Jerome Karabel
Sunday, September 10, 2006


How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges -- and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates

By Daniel Golden

Crown. 323 pp. $25.95

The frenzy surrounding college admissions has spawned a vast and profitable industry. Especially among affluent families, the hiring of private tutors to prepare for the SAT, coaches to nurture athletic skills, and college consultants to help prepare the right application portfolio have become familiar features of adolescence. Of late, the pressure on Junior to get on the track to Harvard has been pushed to ever-younger ages. In large cities, it is not uncommon for parents to hire counselors to coach their toddlers for the interview for admission to pre-school. In a bizarre foreshadowing of what is to come later, some pre-schools now proudly offer early decision programs for 2-year-olds. And just when it seemed that all the possibilities for satire had been exhausted, parents began to push for enrollment in the best play groups for 6-month-olds.

Stepping into this cauldron of anxiety about admission to elite colleges is Daniel Golden, a Wall Street Journal reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for a series of articles on the inner workings of college admissions offices. In his provocative and stimulating book, The Price of Admission , Golden makes a powerful case that the number of well-to-do whites given preference to highly selective colleges dwarfs that of minorities benefiting from affirmative action. He follows this central theme in a wide-ranging series of case studies of systematic preference for the wealthy, the privileged and the famous, as well as legacies, faculty children and -- most innovatively -- athletes in such patrician sports as rowing, horseback riding, fencing and even polo. A tough investigative reporter, Golden does not hesitate to name names -- not only of specific institutions (including Harvard, Duke, Brown, Notre Dame, the University of Virginia, Princeton, Stanford and Amherst) and administrators, but also of individual students (including the sons of Al Gore and Sen. Bill Frist) whom he deems to be beneficiaries of preferences for the privileged. The result is a disturbing exposé of the influence that wealth and power still exert on admission to the nation's most prestigious universities.

That virtually all elite private colleges give preference to the sons and daughters of alumni will come as a surprise to no one. But preference also extends to wealthy applicants whose families have been identified as potential donors -- "development cases" in the parlance of the trade. Golden documents that even Harvard, with its $25.9 billion endowment, is not above giving preference to the scions of the super-rich. His primary example, however, of development cases being central to the admissions process is Duke, where the university embarked on a systematic strategy of raising its endowment by seeking out wealthy applicants. Golden estimates that Duke admitted 100 development applicants each year in the late 1990s who otherwise would have been rejected. Though this may be something of an extreme case, special consideration for applicants flagged by the development office is standard practice at elite colleges and universities.

Also enjoying substantial preference at elite colleges, both public and private, are varsity athletes. In a fascinating case study of women's sports at the University of Virginia, Golden shows how the effort to comply with Title IX, a gender equity law that has the praiseworthy goal of ensuring equality between female and male athletes, has had the unintended effect of giving an admissions edge to female athletes who play upper-class sports. Between 1992 and 2002, the number of college women nationwide in rowing, a sport highly concentrated in private schools and affluent suburbs, rose from 1,555 to 6,690; more recently, the number of female varsity horseback riders increased from 633 to 1,175 between 1998 and 2002. The net effect of the rise of these overwhelmingly patrician sports, Golden argues, has been to further advantage already advantaged women.

After spending most of the book roundly criticizing the admissions practices of many of the nation's most prestigious colleges, Golden turns to what he considers a model institution: The California Institute of Technology. Unlike other leading colleges, Caltech does not allow the prerogatives of privilege -- whether wealth, fame or legacy status -- to affect who gets in. In stark contrast to other top institutions, Caltech believes that it is possible to raise the funds necessary to maintain a great university without using admission as a bribe, and its own distinguished history supports that belief.

But the Caltech admissions policy, though exemplary in its integrity, is not without problems. In no small part because of its narrowly conventional definition of merit (primarily scores on standardized tests, grades and rank in class), it has been notoriously unsuccessful in enrolling African Americans; in 2004, just one out of 207 Caltech freshmen was black (for purposes of comparison, the black proportions of the undergraduate student body at MIT, Stanford and Harvard -- all of which use a more flexible definition of merit -- were 6, 10 and 8 percent, respectively).

A recent study by the Century Foundation estimated that only 3 percent of freshmen at highly selective colleges came from the bottom socioeconomic quartile, compared to 74 percent from the top quartile. Growing awareness of this shocking disparity has led a number of leading private colleges and universities, including Amherst, Harvard and Princeton, to take measures to increase the number of low-income students. But Golden is surprisingly ambivalent about these efforts, fearing (perhaps justifiably) that the admission of more poor and working-class students will be accompanied not by a reduction of preference for the rich, but by a decline in the number of middle-class students. The Caltech model that he finds so appealing is utterly inadequate to address the problem. Given the magnitude of class disparities in educational achievement, only affirmative action for the disadvantaged -- what former Princeton president William Bowen has called a "thumb on the scale" for low-income students -- promises to produce significant results.

The Price of Admission estimates that the end of affirmative action for the privileged would open up roughly 25 percent of the places in the freshman class at elite colleges and, in so doing, free up spaces for aspiring students of modest origins. Based on my own research, I would estimate a figure of 10 to 15 percent -- still a considerable number. But the main beneficiaries of such a shift -- absent a more profound change in the prevailing definition of merit -- would not be the socioeconomically disadvantaged, but rather the children of the upper-middle class.

In his final chapter, Golden issues a series of sensible and hard-hitting recommendations -- among them, ending legacy preference (already a fait accompli at Oxford and Cambridge universities in supposedly class-bound Britain), abolishing preference for athletes in upper-crust sports and for faculty children, and developing conflict-of-interest policies for the staff of the admissions offices. Equally important is his suggestion that a firewall be constructed between the admissions office and the development office -- a change of no small moment in institutions where the link between the two now looks more like an autobahn. But if the past is any guide, change is unlikely to come from within and will await a social movement with the strength and clarity of purpose to demand that our colleges and universities, at long last, live up to their professed ideals. ยท

Jerome Karabel is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of "The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton," now out in paperback.

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