Paul L. Caron

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges

The Price of AdmissionSince I am touring colleges with my daughter this week in advance of the May 1 acceptance deadline, I was particularly struck by the law prof blogosphere discussion (here and here) of 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.  From the Washington Post's review:

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.

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The Ivy's used to sneer at "Hollywood" and now any kid who has a parent with a wide-release feature film can get in. Doesn't have to make money or win any awards. Or kids whose parents are in media, TV production (but not at FOX) or work for certain think tanks. Al Gore's son is a perfect example--drug addict, thick as two planks, but hey! why should he go to U of Tennessee?

Posted by: KateC | Apr 26, 2010 1:08:11 PM

Sorry Paul, but you're really missing the mark here. Have you even considered the benefits to a whole lot of other students when one of the wealthier students or alums donates a new building or funds other types of endowments? Do you understand the additional research and growth opportunities that are created for students and faculty alike? You are being ridiculous in implying that these spots are at the expense of other more "worthy" students. Grow up.

Posted by: Marcus | Apr 26, 2010 7:02:44 AM

I'm shocked...Shocked! to find gambling in this establishement!

Posted by: Captain Louis Renault | Apr 26, 2010 6:13:31 AM

Having gone to Caltech as an undergrad before doing grad work and teaching at other elite universities, I can tell you that one important difference is the tough core curriculum at Caltech and high grading standards. Without grade inflation, the legacy and affirmative action admits would flunk out of the Ivy League. In contrast Caltech requires students from ALL majors to do two years of tough math and two years of physics through quantum mech.

In most cases, there is only one course for all students with physics and math majors lumped in with business or psych students. If you look at Caltech competitor MIT, they only require one year of math and physics and they have numerous tracks to make it easier for business or architecture students to survive. Consider that of the three tracks MIT offers for freshman math, only the hardest section uses textbooks comparable in rigor to that of Caltech's only section. And that's MIT! At the Ivies, calculus isn't even a requirement and honors are handed out like candy. I wager that an average student from a good state school could find a major easy enough to graduate from at Harvard. In contrast, I bet that the bottom half of the class of any Ivy would not be able to make it through Caltech.

So even if Caltech were to bend the definition of merit, most of the soft admits could not survive the first two years.

Posted by: jjn | Apr 26, 2010 3:56:59 AM

Jay Dee, no doubt there must be some prepped kiddos who ride on their parent's wealth or clout in blissful ignorance of that fact, genuine Bleus, yet take for granted the notion that they are simply able folk and who begrudge the quotas set aside for "minorities".... after all the probability that none of them fit the bill is kinda small, yeah? That said, you're statement is hogwash.
Look, almost all people I've met who despise the reliance of admissions on tribe, as opposed to individual, [and this includes me], are from that sorry slogging through life peasanty class where only what you can craft well and truly can be relied upon. Ain't no Lords and ain't no golden ticket of any kind to make you the annointed one. Either you are really good, or you are crud spinning down in the wheel of life. In other words, you either earn it, genuinely force that earning to take hold, or you get squat times diddly. No prep school and its connections, no Papa with a few million dollars worth of art to donate to Harvard, no Son of Sharpton claiming that my 7 bedroom on Nob hill is sufferin' the Man now needs to make amends for, [do you really think that those minority quotas, that "affirmative action", usually goes to kids at genuine disadvantage in some federally inspired shithole such as Cabrini Green or the Roger Taylor homes??]. Yes, not even a Soros or a House of Saud to set you smoothly at the center of Versailles and garland your way like some Dauphin. Just plain ol' brains or bust [and it ain't an exclusive "or", either].
The privileged Idjits, the Kennedy or Kerry or Gore types? They're quite happy with the idea of Da Tribe, Mr. Dee, all da tribes. But they do have Class, Brother, and the one class that gets their goat is that ol' bane of Aristos everywhere: the uppity Kulak with his silly notion of a man or woman being judged as such and not by the collective the Lords would consign them to. Betcha you're a classy guy.

Posted by: To' Azeredo | Apr 24, 2010 8:24:31 AM

"But we have been surprised by the college admissions results over the past two years at their high school"

Because you were unaware, or are you saying this is new, or at least has intensified?

"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)"

Apples, oranges, etc. Every student at CalTech, regardless of major, has to take the engineering core, which is not true at the other three; I doubt the other schools are any better in terms of students who have to meet that requirement. On the plus side, CalTech's policy saves millions since they don't need to operate a huge humanities/grievance studies program for students who can't hack it there but have to be admitted anyway for fund raising or political reasons.

"the author seems to be OK with preferences for student-athletes in football and basketball but not for other NCAA sports"

Football and basketball are huge revenue generators. You can probably find schools where other sports are net revenue generators, but they're outliers.

"who whine and scream and moan about Affirmative Action"

Have to agree with other posters - though each group spans the political spectrum, based on my exposure to financially independent people, those who inherited their wealth are, on average, off the scale to the left of those who are self-made. On pretty much everything, not just AA. In fairness, when an unqualified student admitted for legacy/fundraising reasons notices AA students are equally (or more) qualified, it's not unreasonable for him to conclude the deck is stacked against minorities.

Posted by: J | Apr 24, 2010 8:11:17 AM

"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). ..."

And in its areas of focus, CalTech is a better school than MIT, Stanford, and Harvard. Coincidence? I think not.

Yeah, let's start admitting less competent people to CalTech. Just what we need: less competent scientists and engineers. The notion that enrolling more African-Americans in a university constitutes "success" is severely warped.

Does every single bastion of excellence in this country have to get pulled down?

Faculty in this country is OVERWHELMINGLY leftist. How about some of these lib professors volunteer to give up their jobs so that qualified conservatives can have them? THAT'S some affirmative action I could get behind.

Posted by: Chester White | Apr 24, 2010 7:34:25 AM

Of course... that's why the elites have no problem with affirmative action, and support it strongly becuase it enhances their liberal bona fides---they don't pay the price, which falls on the non-minority middle and working classes, who they can then rag on for being unreasonably "angry."

Kinda like Warren Buffet saying he's fine with the inheritance tax, as he sets up a multi-billion-dollar non-profit to employ his daughter at a very high salary for as long as she wants.

Our elite-run government and major institutions (such as universities) really sucks in their treatment of most people, and their suckitude grows by the day.

Posted by: Marty | Apr 24, 2010 7:01:22 AM

You don't have to go to an elite university to have a great career. For instance, where did several of the last CEO's of Walmart go? (It is the largest corporation in the US isn't it?) They went to Georgia Tech, UCLA, Stanford, and Pittsburg State (in Kansas). People should be judged by their character and their performance not their sheepskin. A bigger problem is the interconnectness of the government and Ivy league which allows a revolving door between government positions and the businesses they regulate or about which they legislate. A simple solution is a new form of prejudice. Don't vote for anyone from an elite college.

Posted by: Richard | Apr 24, 2010 6:35:56 AM

Just for fun, which school in Cincinnati? Always on the look-out for school feedback...

Posted by: Andrew | Apr 24, 2010 6:15:21 AM

"It's called Affirmative Action for Rich White Connected People and their kids. Of course the beneficiaries will swear on a stack of Bibles that it was 100% based on merit. Haha, sure. These are usually the same people who whine and scream and moan about Affirmative Action for Poor Non-White, Non-Connected People and their kids."

Let me join in in denouncing this. It simply isn't true, and the reason it isn't true is that it costs Rich White Connected People nothing to be in favor of affirmative action. How does it hurt them? The people it hurts are the whites who are lower down in terms of economic background. They are the ones who are screaming and they are also the ones the liberals and leftists should be listening to.

By the way, instead of trying to get more poor kids into elite schools, how about making elite schools less important? President Nixon appointed someone to the Supreme Court who went to a pretty obscure and non-elite law school. And that's the way it should be. By the time you are ready for the Supreme Court, it's your achievements and not your school that should count.

Posted by: JFP | Apr 24, 2010 6:11:25 AM

Don't you believe the hype about Caltech. I was a junior faculty member there long ago and remember talking to Feynman about his foray into admissions. The faculty would interview prospective students and make recommendations. He was given a kid who was marginal but very interested in science, in that case, fossils. The kid was pitted against another candidate of the same caliber but who was judged to have the talent to make money when he graduated. Guess who was admitted despite Feynman's advocacy?

Posted by: Paul Boston | Apr 24, 2010 6:06:16 AM

". . . 'back in the day' there wasn't a space to insert SES or parental income."

There sure was at MIT c. 1954. I know because it was the first time my father revealed (to me) his income.

Nevertheless, about the article generally, so what? This is the way the world works. There are hundreds of admirable colleges and universities around the country that are not in this competition. For example, St. Vincent's College, Latrobe, PA, Seton Hall University in New Jersey, Loras College, Dubuque, Iowa. Lots and lots of opportunities out there.

Quit worrying.

Posted by: JohnRDC | Apr 24, 2010 6:01:48 AM

Jay Dee: These "Rich White Connected People and their kids" are most certainly NOT the "same people who whine and scream and moan about Affirmative Action for Poor Non-White, Non-Connected People and their kids." Indeed, they are usually the SAME people who espouse such asinine policies as race-based affirmative action. How many Exeter, Andover, Milton republicans do you know? Conversely, the hardworking, upper-middle class (but not upper class) college grads often have neither the time nor the inclination to complain about either race-based affirmative action OR wealth-based affirmative action. But, they know that they're taking it from both ends, so to speak.

Posted by: TH | Apr 24, 2010 5:30:55 AM

Thank you James Bradley (Apr 23, 2010 9:49:09 PM).

If these were all state schools then equality (and therefore merit) should be the basic criteria. But watch out for those Asians in Cali.)

On the private side, who cares? If Dartmouth wants you to pre-give 100K, great. Fencing? Cool. We Canadians are always happy with lacrosse (national game) and hockey (you guys gave us a run in the Olympics) scholarships.

But, like Prada and Hermes bags, elite private education is a luxury item for which there is a market. Since when does everyone get Prada clothes or Kelly bags?

As the wise man who was the admissions Dean at my then, somewhat harder to get into than Harvard, law school pointed out: what matters is the department and the people you worked with. Stanford has gut courses, so does Berkeley - take them and die on grad or professional school admissions.

If you want a designer undergrad degree you can always go to Brown; but a great degree from a state school with smart people gets you a very long way with a whole lot less money.

Posted by: Jay Currie | Apr 24, 2010 1:51:43 AM

My public suburban high school has a history of sending not very bright lacrosse jocks to Ivy League colleges. In my year alone, two lacrosse players from my school were admitted to Harvard. One had a 1350 SAT score. I don't know the other person's score, but he was in one of my classes, and I know that he was definitely not of Harvard-level intelligence. A third lacrosse player got into Princeton with a 1370 SAT score. Meanwhile, multiple outstanding students were not admitted to either of these schools that year.

More recently, I know of a lacrosse player with poor credentials (his overall GPA was probably below 92; I don't know his SAT score) from the same high school who got into Harvard. Obviously, this type of outcome is extremely frustrating.

Posted by: Name Not Released | Apr 24, 2010 12:46:35 AM

Wanumba, my advice is to return your Saxon math books and get textbooks actually used in college. Saxon is full of repetitive drill but has almost none of the explanation a practitioner needs. Most of the students and teachers at my high school despised Saxon; the school board dropped them the year after I graduated.

Posted by: FC | Apr 23, 2010 11:06:23 PM

I'm a bit torn by this analysis (full disclosure: I teach at a midwestern 'elite' university): not because it isn't valid but because it's, well, obvious.

Case #1: a child with excellent grades, SAT, etc, from a working class family can go to three different schools: the first an elite private university, the second is the flagship state university, and the third is the local good but not great state school. Where does the working class kid go? To the school she/he can afford. They're working class, and the financial 'aid' (e.g., tuition discounts known as internal scholarships, and loans) from the elite school often isn't enough to make the numbers work.

Case #2: a child with excellent grades, SAT, etc, from a well to do family can go to the same three schools. Bet your bottom dollar that kid ends up at the elite private schools. Why -- simple, the kid's parents can afford it.

So what's new? I was case #1 about 30 years ago.

Posted by: Steve White | Apr 23, 2010 8:10:14 PM

"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"

You're not exactly comparing the same thing here. At CalTech everybody has to take the engineering core. I'm pretty sure that's not the case at MIT, and positive it isn't at Stanford or Harvard. What are the stats going by that standard? On the plus side, CalTech doesn't have to maintain a huge humanities/grievance studies program for students who can't hack it there but have to be admitted anyway for financial or political reasons.

"the author seems to be OK with preferences for student-athletes in football and basketball but not for other NCAA sports"

Because the revenue brought in by those two sports dwarfs the revenue from all other sports combined?

"over-representation of ivy league grads within our government"

It would be nice to see the Solomon amendment expanded to say the government is not permitted to hire graduates of schools that bar military recruiting, or do business with companies that hire them.

Posted by: J | Apr 23, 2010 7:50:06 PM

All I want to know is, are the Government elite (who attended Harvard and Yale) still railing against the Wall Street elite (who attended Harvard and Yale) for ruining the economy? For such smart people, from such prestigious schools, it sure seems they have absolutely no clue how to run a country that attained superpower status on the backs of... well... those who didn't attend Harvard or Yale.

Posted by: JSmitan | Apr 23, 2010 7:18:07 PM

These are usually the same people who whine and scream and moan about Affirmative Action for Poor Non-White, Non-Connected People and their kids.

You've nuts. I ended up knowing quite a few of the "wealthy" and connected at the elite school I attended and they were, if anything, more liberal and multicultural than the middle class kids. From my observation their politics came from the guilty rich syndrome and the admission about admissions tends to explain why. The actual people getting shafted for the last 20 years were middle class white and asian males. In the last few years they've started affirmative actioning males of all types to keep the gender ratio closer to 50 percent.

That's no excuse. When you start admitting people on anything but merit it is a form of corruption and they should be called on it.

Posted by: K | Apr 23, 2010 7:15:03 PM

'Twas always thus, always will be.

Is this why Duke is so good at basketball?

Posted by: David | Apr 23, 2010 7:11:37 PM

Hope this helps: We used the National Review's College Guide to the Top 50 Liberal Arts Schools to find colleges. Their intro explanation of what makes a good liberal arts program is very very informative. Their end chapter, "THE GULAG" details the mess of Harvard, Brown and the rest of the over-priced ivies. NR Guide looked for generally conservative, classics-oriented and religion-friendly (they didn't review stated religious colleges - a subject for another book). They also ranked for actual professors teaching, not the bait and switch of the Ivies with graduate students teaching undergrads. Most these schools were about 1,000-2,000 in size and had solid endowments to help students finance. Our son picked all-male Hampden-Sydney College, established 1775, and did very very well by them.
AS for CALTECH and not enrolling many Blacks. It's an engineering school. MATH MATH MATH. THe USA has a TERRIBLE math education program in place. Asia and Europe still have good programs. The Asian kids are not all geniuses, but good training goes a long way. The Third International Math and SCience Survey for 8th grade math & science had for MATH Singapore, Japan, Russia, Czech Republic and France as top 5 internationally. USA was NOWHERE. Interestingly, with less than half the overtime effort of CHina & Japan, Russia, Czech and France were close on their heels. In the USA, math ed is substandard everywhere,(pisspoor CHicago Math and Everyday Math) and is further weakened by students who hear their parents and their teachers moaning, "I was never good in math." The problem is that out of a Black population of around 12%, only a % of them are students, of that small %, most totally AVOID math. Those who are interested in mathematics, a smaller %, are trying, but getting crap math training. WHite AMerican kids aren't in much better straights - there're just more of them, yet they aren't getting the math training they need for college tech fields either .. so the colleges fill up with foreign students who ARE prepared. Our other son is in ALgebra I right now. That class is on chapter 4. It's April now. There is no way they will even get 1/2 of the book done by June 1. They'll have Algebra 1 on their transcript, but it's half the course. THe ALgebra II class is on Chapter 3. They arrived with not enough background from...Algebra I. Terrible, disorganized and incomplete textbook. He wants to go into a tech field so that is UNACCEPTABLE - it will deliver him unprepared for the SAT and the level of college math he'll need, just to APPLY. We switched him to independent study with excellent SAXON MATH. Too much focus on "race" and "poverty" and not enough on the math most American students, Black or White are NOT getting.

Posted by: wanumba | Apr 23, 2010 6:53:40 PM

I can tell you from some level of personal experience that this is creeping down the scale. My daughter goes to what we discovered is a really well-regarded pre-school in the DC area. At a party, we met an admissions person from a locally well-known private school. After finding out where my daughter goes to school, she told me she looks forward to our application in a few years. I was more than a little taken aback.

Posted by: Jacknut | Apr 23, 2010 6:53:32 PM

Should not a private university be entitled to admit the persons it pleases? The undercurrent here is, I fear, some calling for further central state controls on these institutions, or as suggested by others above, acceptance (though not any particular principle) of the broken so-called affirmative action programs of the past. While I would support revoking their anti-competitive and outsized investor creating tax exemptions, there is no entitlement to be admitted to any private institution nor should there be.

Posted by: James Bradley | Apr 23, 2010 6:49:09 PM

Although many of the points in your article are valid, I'd argue that, thanks for federal law, "the opaqueness of the financial aid process" that you mention is on the way out. Schools will soon be required to offer web-based tools that will give families a realistic estimate of the financial aid they would qualify for given their financial situation. I'm not sure how much teeth the law has, but I suspect that if wide disparities existed between estimates and actual aid packages, parents would make themselves heard, in the press or in the legislatures.

Posted by: Matt | Apr 23, 2010 6:37:30 PM

Two thoughts:
1: How many more students can the schools accept because of the rich students (and the extra funds they bring)?
2: What are the failure rates of the rich students? How do they compare to the failure rates of the "Affirmative Action" students?

Posted by: Greg Q | Apr 23, 2010 6:13:30 PM

"because of its narrowly conventional definition of merit (primarily scores on standardized tests, grades and rank in class), it [caltech] has been notoriously unsuccessful in enrolling African Americans;

I have even more respect for Caltech having read that. Sounds like a pretty standard definition of merit to me: how well did you do at school? What would the author prefer? That they use a completely irrelevant definition of merit, like the color of ones skin? Affirmative action of any kind was, and always will be, a complete scam.

Posted by: IDidItMyWay | Apr 23, 2010 6:13:15 PM

"...the required cash donation to give your child a leg up at a name school is startlingly small -- $25-50,000 in most cases..."

I guess that's startlingly small if you're a gazillionaire who won't miss it and just wants to see a certain name on a certain piece of paper.

Otherwise, the cost only begins with that 25-50 grand. There's the extra 10 or 15 grand a year that the name school will cost compared to a number of schools that give just as good an undergraduate education. So now we're up to as much as a hundred grand to get your kid into a school you don't believe she can get into via grades and SATs -- a school in which she may not do very well. Suppose she does very poorly indeed? That costs too -- more than you can easily calculate.

Posted by: Bill Adams | Apr 23, 2010 6:12:15 PM

Another quibble, the current varsity riding programs are almost exclusively at large state universities in the Big12 and SEC with a TCU, SMU and Fresno State thrown in. There are no elite universities with Women's varsity riding programs currently.

Posted by: Eric van der Walde | Apr 23, 2010 6:05:36 PM

When my daughters were considering college, I told them that no one cared where your bachelors degree was earned. Graduate work, on the other hand, required that one carefully consider where to attend. One daughter wanted quite badly to go to Tulane. At the same time she had been offered a full ride at the state school of which I later become an employee. I told her that if she could convince me that an undergraduate degree from Tulane was worth five times as much as a degree from the state school ($24,000 annually for Tulane vs. $4000+ annually for the state school) then her mother and I would help her find a way to attend. She went to the state school, graduated Cum Laude with a double major in Econ and Accounting and was snapped up by a major accounting firm. She is now a CPA, happily married and quite well off. I doubt she even thinks about Tulane any more.

The one thing I have not seen mentioned in this discussion is the over-representation of ivy league grads within our government, where those sorts of degrees seem to matter quite a lot - to the severe detriment of our nation, I would argue.

Posted by: Antimedia | Apr 23, 2010 5:54:08 PM

In my 50+ year working life the dumbest management guy I ran across had an MBA from Notre Dame. Got in on a legacy admission. How do I know he was dumb? Told me (with great fanfare) where he went to school. Then in the next breath told me how he got in.

Posted by: glenn | Apr 23, 2010 5:53:58 PM

I'm afraid I just don't understand objections to either "legacy" or "development" admittances. If it is OK to admit "disadvantaged" students who are demonstrably far less probable of academic success (and I think the track record is clear on this), then why not be prepared to do the same for "legacy" or "development" candidates?

Posted by: John Gardner | Apr 23, 2010 5:35:03 PM

As someone that went through it this year I agree with the observation that un-qualified blacks and marginally qualified whites with connections trump brilliant white kids without connections. Thank God for Ward Connerly.

Posted by: EconRon | Apr 23, 2010 5:31:09 PM

My experience is that college admissions at "elite private" universities was like playing poker with a guy named Doc. It really gripes me that we let these places receive tax deductible donations, and sit on multi-billion dollar endowments, and continue to act in such a high handed manner.

My thought is that we let the universities choose, either they can be private institutions in which case they do not get privileges from taxation, or they participate in an orderly, fair, nationwide, and completely transparent admission system, with the scholarship money doled out on a similar basis.

Posted by: Fat Man | Apr 23, 2010 5:26:53 PM

All I can say is that 1) the required cash donation to give your child a leg up at a name school is startlingly small -- $25-50,000 in most cases -- and that 2)male and female athletes who play lacrosse well at a respected private school can attend most Ivy League schools, plus Duke, UVA, etc. as long as they have say 1100 - 1200 math and verbal SAT. Sports admissions are entirely different -- the coach decides and then prays the admission folks won't overide. They are often in the bottom 10% of typical admissions. SO put down those books and pick up a lacrosse stick! Or epee or whatever.

Posted by: Laurie W. | Apr 23, 2010 5:16:33 PM

Thanks for sharing your experiences and thoughts. They bring back pleasant memories of the same odyssey with my daughter eight years ago. She got into her dream school based on her own grit and determination, and continues to make me proud of her. May you share the same fate.

Posted by: Porkov | Apr 23, 2010 5:13:03 PM

My major quibble is why the author seems to be OK with preferences for student-athletes in football and basketball but not for other NCAA sports. It seems that to many schools, a NCAA national champion, whether in swimming or in golf is equally valuable in terms of promotion and prestige. Therefore, there seems nothing wrong with schools giving preference to any athlete who has a chance of bringing a championship to the school. And I don't think money is the problem. It's more a cultural/class thing. How many public schools have a football program? Do you really think that 10 high school fencers and a coach and the proper equipment costs more than 100+ football players, multiple coaches, field and upkeep, etc? Either we give all student-athletes equal preference or we don't. I don't see why the author thinks that saving a spot for a star running back is fine but not for a star golfer. Unless it is because the running back is more likely to be black and the golfer white.

Posted by: Zach Foreman | Apr 23, 2010 5:09:02 PM

I teach in a science faculty in a huge state university now, did teach in a "public Ivy" for a few years. This admissions game is yet another component of the snobbishness culture in academia.

In my experience it is the less well off institutions that have the worst snobbishness problems. Every college president wants to have his institution be another MIT or Stanford. For example, there is a small college in the midwest that used to advertise itself as "Harvard of the Midwest." Kind of lame, but that is, as they say in D.C., a "true fact."

I think students in a hurly burly large university are in a good place, with advantages that the lace panty boys in Cambridge tea parties cannot acquire.

Posted by: V for victory | Apr 23, 2010 4:57:46 PM

As gullyborg says, It takes money to fund a school "with things like a world class research library, supercomputers, state of the art labs, etc". Unfortunately, such facilities are rarely if ever seen, much less used, by the undergraduate population. Most of the elite schools get their fabulous reputation from their research and post-graduate facilities and faculty. IMO, the undergraduate education provided by most of the elite schools is just mediocre, and can be matched or exceeded by dozens of second-tier schools. The typical undergrad at the elite schools gets to ride the coattails of the "Wow, you went to..."! factor, without the rigorous education to match.

Posted by: ppersiflage | Apr 23, 2010 4:55:58 PM

I don't know why this surprises anyone. There really is no "free market" in university-level education nor is our system really based upon a system of intellectual merit. Instead, our system is entirely dependent upon "social factors": race, gender, socioeconomic class, i.e. "diversity". Our school system has become more interested in making sure that "underrepresented minorities" are accepted to school as opposed to just accepting individuals on merit. For example, in the portion of the article that the TaxProf posted, WaPo says one of the disadvantages of the CalTech system is that there are not enough blacks enrolled at the school. Well, if Caltech does not allow the "prerogatives of privilege" influence its decision making about who gets to attend its school, then how is it a disadvantage that not enough blacks (which the "prerogative of privilege" would be the color of one's skin) are attending Caltech?

When we create a system that is not based on free-market principles or on educational merit, then we are left with a system where those that are politically and financially privilege benefit. Forget the hardworking individual that works long hours to save money to pay for at least a year of college for his child and the student that works hard at school: in order to get into the elite colleges, if you aren't an "underrepresented minority" (read, Black or Hispanic) or an alum or rich person, then the chances of you getting into one of the great colleges are slim.

For what it's worth, I'm black and I despise Affirmative Action. If we are to get to the world where Martin Luther King Jr. says we are to be judged by the content of our character, then we need to get beyond race. We won't get beyond race if we establish policies that benefit one race over another.

Posted by: Chris Bolts Sr | Apr 23, 2010 4:50:42 PM

Racketeering in admissions and grants? Nah. Can't be. Education is a profession. For the children.

Posted by: willem | Apr 23, 2010 4:45:40 PM

Sorry, Ford, but you're a victim of advertising. If you look at the percentage of graduates who actually go to grad school and get their PhD, Grinnell College rates higher than Harvard or Yale. If you look at Rhodes Scholarships, or at "success in life" measures like being listed in Who's Who twenty years later, schools like Washington and Lee do better than the Ivies. And how many of the success stories you do find at the prestige schools were born on third base, bought their way in as detailed in the article, and were bound to succeed in life no matter how badly they fared in the bottom of the class? Did being expelled from Harvard hurt Ted Kennedy? Without the legacy kids, it would be even more obvious that the prestige schools have no magic powers to confer success.

As deplorable as affirmative action for the rich is, it doesn't harm the recipients the way affirmative action for the poor does. It's the old mismatch problem. The kid who could have graduated Syracuse U. with a nice transcript but instead took an AA slot at Yale and flunked out in his third year has no family money to fall back on for a second chance at a BA -- and his morale has been crushed too.

Posted by: Bill Adams | Apr 23, 2010 4:37:17 PM

That's just how we roll @ INDOCTRINATE what?

Posted by: INDOCTRINATE U | Apr 23, 2010 4:37:05 PM

WTF? What's the problem here? A college admits students with an eye to its own self-interests. Heavens! Who could imagine? Not only that, but I bet the students decide where to go to college based on THEIR self-interest, too. There are probably students who go to Harvard not because they really love the teachers, courses, Harvard atmosphere, the chance to really dig into Plato, yadda yadda -- but just because they think that Harvard sheepskin will ring the ol' cash register later in life. Oh the humanity! That people should serve their own interests first! What is this world coming to? Sodom and Gomorrah, I tell you.

Posted by: Carl Pham | Apr 23, 2010 4:36:20 PM

Am I the only one disturbed by the expression "a more flexible definition of merit?"

Posted by: mark | Apr 23, 2010 4:31:36 PM

the people that take advantage of this dirty secret are the same ones that talk a lot the poor and minorities.

Posted by: barqui | Apr 23, 2010 4:29:59 PM

Well, i went to a state school for undergrad and to Yale for law school.

I won't say they were a demographic slice of americana, but there was no one there who wasn't an extremely impressive intellect. Black, white, rich, poor, whatever their background, they were all very impessive. So i left thinking, at least in that contet, the legend of legacy admissions, etc. was overblown. Fwiw.

As for the undergrad, well, i expect for them to be disproportionately rich, but, well, i also consider it to be a monumental waste of money. I have said this for a long time. Unless we are talking about a top-3 school, don't even consider going to private school. Go to a public school and save your money.

Posted by: A.W. | Apr 23, 2010 4:24:05 PM

I can think of a couple of ways for colleges to get an idea of an applicant's means. One is mentioned in the post: does the student apply for financial aid? Students from wealthy families won't bother. Another is the student's zip code. Nine-digit codes in particular give you a very, very good idea of SES.

Posted by: jaed | Apr 23, 2010 4:23:49 PM

It's interesting to see what admissions counselors think is important. Years ago, my oldest son was applying and was asked to write an essay on something important he had done in his young life. He asked me about it and decided to write his essay on sailing to Hawaii with me in the Transpac Race when he was 16. He stood a watch and steered during 50 knot squalls with a spinnaker up. It was a real manhood experience.

His high school counselor told him it was a ridiculous thing to write about on a college admission essay and asked him if he even wanted to go to college. He is now a partner in a national law firm.

Posted by: Michael Kennedy | Apr 23, 2010 4:20:40 PM

I enjoyed Golden's book and think it's probably pretty accurate - it certainly was consistent with our daughters' experience as 'hooked' applicants: at one ivy, the fencing coach called my daughter (who had not yet applied) to tell her he was holding a spot for her.

I don't have much of a problem, for private schools at least, with using one sort of hook or another, whether it's donors (legacies and the "rich"), or athletes, or what have you. Even race, I suppose, although I think the significant lowering of standards for minorities is a problem. For most of the 'hooked' applicants, it's not about whether or not they're well-qualified, it's about sorting among between 5 and 10 (or more) exceptionally well-qualified applicants for each place in the class.

Public schools are different issue, and there legacy preferences are probably unacceptable. Preferences for state residents, however, are surely defensible, and I think preferences for athletes are probably also defensible on some level. Again, this is in connection with public flagships where there are always significantly more very well-qualified applicants for each place in the class.

I do think, however, schools should be very upfront about giving these kinds of preferences and how much the influence admissions decisions. Certainly, as our kids were going through a suburban high school where 95% go to 4 year (and more than half to very to most selective) colleges, it was common knowledge that just having a 4.+ GPA would not do it - every student with high aspirations needed to distinguish him- or herself by athletic, performing arts or other accomplishments, and from elementary school on (at least) children focused on activities.

Posted by: CatoRenasci | Apr 23, 2010 4:09:10 PM

Who is running these colleges? Obviously not you.

If you were, you would find yourself on the other end of the transaction doing exactly what admissions officials are doing today ... trying to balance the intellectual prosperity of their institution with the economic prosperity of their institution.

Spend a couple of years making huge donations to the college(s) of your childrens' choice or make it apparent that big donations will be forthcoming in the future and you will see results.

Someone has to pay the freight. If it's not going to be you, just be grateful that it will be the parents of someone else and that your children will be the direct beneficiaries of that largess. Emphasis on the "be grateful" part.

Posted by: Paul A'Barge | Apr 23, 2010 4:07:10 PM

Ah yes, it's Jay Dee again, well-respected troll and general butthead.

"It's called Affirmative Action for Rich White Connected People and their kids. Of course the beneficiaries will swear on a stack of Bibles that it was 100% based on merit. Haha, sure. These are usually the same people who whine and scream and moan about Affirmative Action for Poor Non-White, Non-Connected People and their kids."

No, it's not. You ever see Al Gore (junior) screaming and moaning about AA? Even George Bush (junior) was a no-show on this issue. The people who scream and moan about AA are middle-class whites who don't get those breaks; maybe the occasional conservative populist.

Posted by: Zimriel | Apr 23, 2010 4:04:06 PM

I would be a lot more upset if I thought that it mattered. There is no evidence that going to an elite school improves one's life chances. The evidence there is shows that if one could qualify for an elite school but for whatever reason one goes to a non-elite school, one does just as well over the course of one's life, even when one measures doing well by income controlling, of course, for parental wealth. That is, the mean of the elite schools' value-added over that of non-elite schools is zero.

Posted by: Acad Ronin | Apr 23, 2010 4:02:06 PM

Fencing is 'patrician'? Who knew? I fenced in high school, and I benefited from a strong fencing community in San Antonio (you know, that bastion of patrician-ness). I think most of the people I fenced with would have laughed out loud at the label -- in particular the Pentathletes who trained at Fort Sam Houston....

My son now fences, in a little studio near Memphis. I'll have to tell his coach that we're all patricians now.... ;--)


Posted by: bbbeard | Apr 23, 2010 4:00:44 PM

I think the very low number of black students at Caltech has something to do with the type of college it is as well as the workings of its admission policies. People who go there do so to study math, science and engineering, and there are broader cultural factors that seem to lead to black people having less interest in these subjects. This is a shame, but a college with a broader subject focus but similar admission policies would likely have more black students. Of course, Caltech's narrower subject focus might also be a major reason why it can operate this sort of admission policy: this gives it access to various sources of funding (tech companies, government laboratories) that colleges with other specialisations might find hard to duplicate.

All that said, I have spoken to the odd Caltech professor, and sometimes they express a little unease with not just the shortage of black people in the student body but also the shortage of white people. East Asians (Chinese, Koreans,...) and South Asians (Indians, mostly) are massively overrepresented in the student body. Occasionally it is whispered that a white person may be admitted ahead of an equally qualified Chinese person, on the basis that it is not desirable for white people to make up too small a portion of the subject body. Such whispers are normally and correctly dismissed out of hand, but they are occasionally heard.

Posted by: Michael Jennings | Apr 23, 2010 3:53:02 PM

I heard a new acronym in my colleges' admissions process this year - DNA. I thought it was slang for legacies - but it stands for Did Not Apply (for financial aid). You see, there are those who apply in hope that they might get something. Then there are the families who just KNOW they will end up writing a check for the whole thing.

That answers Aaraon's question, for instance. If you don't even apply, we know you can afford us.

And then there are simple town/zipcode/last name/school searches. We DO ask parents' names on the application forms.

Posted by: Michael Tinkler | Apr 23, 2010 3:51:29 PM

These are usually the same people who whine and scream and moan about Affirmative Action for Poor Non-White, Non-Connected People and their kids.

Nope, not my experience at all. It's my experience that the Rich, Well-Connected White People that benefit from this are the ones who talk about how Affirmative Action is important and necessary and really not that big of a deal. After all, it's not a big deal for them since they still get into their preferred school.

The people who complain about both types of affirmative action are people who *didn't* get into the school of their choice, who imagine (rightly or wrongly) that they would have were it not for affirmative action of both types.

The Poor White Non-Connected People despise both sorts of affirmative action, I assure you.

Also note that in the case of California public universities, it was Ward Connerly who also led the successful push to ban legacy admissions.

Posted by: John Thacker | Apr 23, 2010 3:49:22 PM

@Mike > "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."

>How do you know these students' scores?

At small competitive high schools, public or private, virtually all the seniors know each other's test scores and extracurricular activities admissions strategies.

Posted by: David | Apr 23, 2010 3:43:27 PM

It's a real conundrum. It takes money to fund a school with things like a world class research library, supercomputers, state of the art labs, etc. So the more the school can charge students - and the more the school can get from wealthy alumni donors - the better able the school will be to provide the best possible education. Thus, education from the best schools costs the most money - and thus the best schools must, in order to remain the best, go out of their way to select students who can not only pay six figure tuition over four years, but who will also be likely to offer millions of dollars of future donation potential - that means favoring the rich. The school could choose to ignore the wealth of the applicant/family and recruit solely on merit - but in so doing could miss out on huge donations down the road, and therefore could miss out on big dollar improvements necessary to remain a top school. So by only recruiting the smartest without considering wealth, the school becomes inferior in terms of the actual education it can provide - meaning the brightest students aren't getting the top education they deserve. What do you do? I don't know.

Posted by: gullyborg | Apr 23, 2010 3:41:45 PM

"I'm not going to argue with your thesis - that many elite colleges favor kids from wealthy families they hope will become donors - but I haven't yet read the book so I have a question: How do they know?"

Just knowing your zip code should narrow it down pretty well.

Posted by: Phil | Apr 23, 2010 3:40:38 PM

As a former varsity fencer at one of the schools mentioned, I can attest that a large portion of the individuals I competed with from schools that were ranked slight lower (but still excellent schools) were from former Soviet countries. Just an interesting fact that may undercut Golden's point on that fact.

Posted by: PJ | Apr 23, 2010 9:05:11 AM

I'm not going to argue with your thesis - that many elite colleges favor kids from wealthy families they hope will become donors - but I haven't yet read the book so I have a question: How do they know? It's been a long time since I filled out a college application, but "back in the day" there wasn't a space to insert SES or parental income.

Posted by: Aaron | Apr 23, 2010 8:42:44 AM

While the university or college one attends isn't inherently going to result in personal and financial success, the chances of success are increased by proving that you went to an elite school. You are more likely to meet wealthy alumni, have a strong network (typically) of companies who consider you first, and tend to have an easier time impressing grad schools. In the same way that people trust Coca Cola brand over a generic cola they've never heard of, employers, grad schools, and social acquaintances are more likely to give you credence if your academic branding is easily recognized. There will be high achieving students who attend lesser ranked schools, but the expectation is that students are highly ranked schools, with better facilities and more financial backing are simply going to be more successful. US News ranking system is built on that premise, and millions of people give that a lot of credence.

Posted by: Ford | Apr 23, 2010 6:51:37 AM

"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."

How do you know these students' scores?

Posted by: Mike | Apr 23, 2010 12:25:03 AM

While I agree with Prof. Caron, I think he misses the real lesson. Your personal and financial success are not determined by the school you attended or whether you graduated.

Posted by: Joe | Apr 22, 2010 8:09:32 PM

One minor quibble: although I don't know enough about polo, horseback riding, or crew to judge those cases, as far as fencing is concerned, the results aren't as black-and-white as it might seem. The strongest youth fencing program is the Peter Westbrook foundation, which targets inner-city kids in New York. These students have enormous success in gaining access to strong fencing programs, which, outside of Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State, and St. John's, are basically the Ivies, Duke, Brandeis, MIT, NYU, Northwestern, and a few other assorted schools. So fencing certainly does help academically marginal students get into elite institutions, but it's hardly a rush of St. Paul's and Exeter students stealing spots from more qualified students

Posted by: New York | Apr 22, 2010 7:56:13 PM

According to my Tar Heel fiancee, it is common knowledge in North Carolina that you can get into Duke so long as your parents are rich, and the practice still exists today.

Posted by: Kat | Apr 22, 2010 7:29:11 PM

And so Exeter, Deerfield, and Groton (and all the rest) continue to send nearly all of their sires and scions to the top 10 or 15 colleges in the country.

Let me guess: your kids are at Seven Hills?

Posted by: New England | Apr 22, 2010 6:45:40 PM

It's called Affirmative Action for Rich White Connected People and their kids. Of course the beneficiaries will swear on a stack of Bibles that it was 100% based on merit. Haha, sure. These are usually the same people who whine and scream and moan about Affirmative Action for Poor Non-White, Non-Connected People and their kids.

Posted by: Jay Dee | Apr 22, 2010 4:18:27 PM