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Rigged college admissions?

Posted by Christopher Shea  January 11, 2010 09:55 AM

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Right now one of the most-emailed Globe articles is an opinion piece by Neil Gabler, arguing that the elite-college admissions process is stacked against you (the student) "[i]f you are a middle-class youth or minority from poor circumstances." The relation of SAT scores to parental income is too complex an issue to resolve in a blog post. Yes, there is a strong correlation. On the other hand, SAT scores also at least partly serve as a counterbalance against elitist admissions processes, in that it becomes more difficult to admit a St. Paul's/Exeter/Groton graduate with low scores--an underachieving Establishment WASP--when there are so many public-school students with stellar SATs. (Before the SAT, elite colleges got away with ignoring the public schools, as well as, say, Jews. However, Gabler is right that the public-school students with high SATs tend to come from better-off families than those with low scores.)

One line in the opinion piece, however, struck me as quite slippery:

[A]s Daniel Golden demonstrated in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series for the Wall Street Journal and then in his book, "The Price of Admission," the so-called "best" schools give heavy preferences to the wealthy; as many as one-third of admissions, he writes, are flagged for special treatment at the elite universities, one-half at the elite liberal arts colleges, and the number of open spaces for the non-privileged is reduced accordingly.

Wow: colleges reserve up to half their spaces for the wealthy? Well, no: a large proportion of the students who receive such treatment--indeed, the largest proportion--are athletes. Gabler goes on to mention athletes but contends that they are "primarily wealthy white kids who are adept at lacrosse, rugby, crew and polo."

Bosh. Sports like those amount to only a sliver of a given college's athletic offerings. (How big was your college's polo team? And I don't think anyone recruits for rugby, which tends to be a club sport ...) Far more egregiously, Gabler fails to mention traditional affirmative action, except to say that many of the students that colleges count as African American are, in fact, West Indian or African immigrants. That seems like a subject for a different opinion piece. The fact remains that underrepresented minority students make up a significant percentage of the students who get "special treatment"--quite a bit larger, I believe, than that for alumni kids.

It may be the case that "special treatment" is by definition bad. Yet I doubt that this is Gabler's position. By conflating affirmative action, athletic recruitment, and preference for alumni children and the wealthy, Gabler only piles confusion on top of an already confusing topic.

The piece would have been stronger without the numerical legerdemain.

Golden is more nuanced in "The Price of Admission," a fine book.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

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Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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