The “Varsity Blues” admissions scandal shows just how far some wealthy parents will go to get their children into elite colleges. In one case at Yale, parents paid $1.2 million to make their daughter look like a star soccer player in a fake athletic profile. Why are Ivy League applicants — even the overwhelming majority who apply legitimately — so desperate to get in, and why is this set of schools so renowned? A number of myths surround the group of eight schools originally grouped together as a sports conference.
Because of the impressive SAT scores and high grades of students admitted to Ivy League institutions, many people incorrectly infer that superhuman academic performance is the key ingredient for admission. “Grades are still the most important factor in admissions,” the founder of one consulting firm told USA Today. “Course rigor is also extremely important.” This assumption underlies a current lawsuit against Harvard, which argues that the proportion of Asian Americans in the student body would double if admissions were based on grades and test scores alone.
But Harvard and its sister Ivies do not see educating the next generation of rocket scientists, professors and assorted intellectuals as their primary task. Instead, they select students whose qualities seem most likely to make them future members of what the sociologist C. Wright Mills called the “power elite,” what Marxists dubbed the “ruling class” and what Ivy League presidents refer to simply as “leaders.”
In reality, academic strength is just one of several dimensions by which candidates are ranked, including extracurriculars, athletics and the enigmatic “personal” ranking. Harvard’s internal statistical analyses, released over the course of the lawsuit, revealed that the personal ranking carried the most weight and the academic ranking the least. This skepticism toward applicants who are one-sidedly academic has deep roots: As far back as the 1950s, Harvard’s dean of admissions, Wilbur Bender, warned about the notion that “the only person who belongs at Harvard is the valedictorian, the obvious intellectual, the white-faced grind” and imposed an effective quota of 10 percent on “top brains.”
Savvy parents and applicants are well aware that the Ivy League values athletic talent. But it is often listed as just one “hook” among many others, including legacy status, membership in a historically underrepresented minority group and socioeconomic disadvantage. A 2012 article in the Daily Beast, for example, lamented the prospects for applicants without “special” positioning as “a star athlete, concert pianist or first generation to go to college.” Asked in 2012 about the magnitude of athletics, a former dean of admissions at Princeton said that “we do not emphasize one activity over the other; athletes as well as artistic endeavors are equally valued.” She went on to specifically mention “musicians, dancers or actors” as groups receiving recognition.
But athletes are a special case and are given vastly more preference than other recognized categories. Varsity coaches exert tremendous influence by giving the admissions office a list of recruited athletes — a list that is usually respected. Equally outstanding musicians, artists, actors and dancers do not receive the same treatment. This preference outweighs even the preference given to legacies or minorities. In a study of 30 selective institutions conducted by James Shulman and former Princeton president William G. Bowen, athletes were 48 percent more likely to be admitted than applicants without a hook, compared with 18 percent for racial minorities and 25 percent for legacies. But the best evidence on varsity athletes comes from data revealed during the recent Harvard lawsuit: Non-athletes with a mediocre academic rating of 4 (on a 1 to 6 scale) had an admit rate of 0.076, compared with about 70 percent for athletes — a probability nearly 1,000 times greater.
With pricey college admissions consultants from companies like Ivy Coach charging up to $1.5 million for five-year packages to steer children toward Ivy League schools, it is natural to think these are the nation’s most selective colleges. And it is true that it is very hard to get in; in 2017, more than 280,000 students applied to the eight Ivies, and less than 10 percent were admitted.
But over the past few years Stanford has become even more selective than Harvard. In 2018, just 4.3 percent of Stanford’s applicants were admitted, compared with 4.6 percent at Harvard. And neither is quite as selective as another institution, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where the admissions rate is just 3 percent. Just four of the 10 most selective colleges in the country are Ivies — Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia — with MIT, Caltech, Stanford and Julliard more selective than the other four members of the league.
Over the past half-century, Ivy institutions have adopted a policy of ignoring financial considerations in admissions decisions; applicants’ inability to pay tuition won’t stop a school from admitting them. More recently, a number of Ivies have offered full scholarships covering room, board and tuition for students coming from families with incomes below $65,000. Along with commitments to give special consideration to socioeconomically disadvantaged students, regardless of race, one would expect that the net effect of these policies would be to increase the proportion of poor and working-class students at Ivy League colleges. The University of Pennsylvania claims that the school’s financial aid program and “unflagging commitment to access is tearing down barriers.” In 2018, Harvard touted a new aid program that “has brought to campus new diversity — both racial and economic — and has created opportunities for students from a wide range of backgrounds to interact and learn from one another.”
But these well-intentioned initiatives have produced disappointing results. A recent study by researchers at the Equality of Opportunity Project based on anonymous tuition records and tax filings reveals that Princeton, Yale, Dartmouth, Penn and Brown have more students from the top 1 percent of the income distribution than from the bottom 60 percent. Moreover, of the 10 highly selective colleges that enrolled the highest shares of low- and middle-income students, none are in the Ivy League.
In practice, Ivy League admissions demonstrate little preference for poor and working-class students. In a 2006 study that examined 19 selective colleges (including Harvard, Yale and Princeton), former Princeton president Bowen and others concluded that “applicants from low socioeconomic backgrounds, whether defined by family income or parental education, get essentially no break in the admissions process.” More recently, a statistical analysis released during the Harvard lawsuit revealed that socioeconomically disadvantaged applicants received at most a very modest “tip” in admissions.
Ivy League alumni conspicuously crowd some of our country’s most prominent institutions: Seven of the nine members of the Supreme Court were undergraduates at Ivy League colleges, and all nine of them attended either Harvard or Yale for law school . Every president after Ronald Reagan has had a degree from the Ivy League, often multiple. “The world that produced John Kerry and George Bush is indeed giving us our next generation of leaders,” observed William Deresiewicz in an essay for the American Scholar.
A number of studies have shown that Ivy League graduates are vastly overrepresented in positions of corporate and political leadership: Almost a third of officers and directors in the corporate elite earned undergraduate degrees from elite schools.
But overrepresentation is far from dominance. In a comprehensive 2017 study of “3,990 senior executives drawn from 15 sectors, including government,” researchers at the University of California at Riverside found that barely 10 percent attended Ivy League colleges. Ivy League graduates were most represented in industries involving media, including publishing, journalism and the arts — but even there, they were a decided minority.
Attending an Ivy League college is far from a prerequisite for leadership in America’s major institutions. In this regard, the United States is far more open and democratic than Britain, where Oxford and Cambridge graduates occupy positions in the elite to a degree unlike anything in this country: Three-quarters of Britain’s prime ministers, and the majority of its judges, journalists and civil servants, attended Oxford or Cambridge.