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). ...
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. ...
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.
This rings true from my experience. My wife and I scrimped and saved to send our two kids to an exceptionally strong private school in Cincinnati, and we are thrilled by the great college choices our kids have had. But we have been surprised by the college admissions results over the past two years at their high school -- not by the thumb on the scale in favor of racial minorities, athletes, and legacies, but by the extent of the admissions bump enjoyed by students from wealthy families. Such students have fared better in the admissions process than non-wealthy students with higher test scores, higher grades, and richer extracurricular and leadership activities. Indeed, for upper-middle class (not "rich") families, a key decision point in the process is whether to apply for financial aid -- as the New York Times and others have reported, a dirty secret in the admissions game is that many (most? all?) colleges apply looser admissions standards if a student's parents are able to pay the tuition "rack rate," particularly in the case of elite colleges that promise loan-free financial assistance to all needy admitted students. Such families are in a quandary given the opaqueness of the financial aid process -- don't apply, and run the risk of missing out on financial aid; apply, and run the risk of losing out in the admissions lottery. The problem is exacerbated at elite schools outside the Top 10 or so which offer merit scholarships -- these schools typically require interested students to apply for financial aid in order to be eligible for academic scholarships.