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ALEX BEAM

Harvard's admissions of gilt

Can you buy your way into Harvard? Of course you can, if my friend Dan Golden's new book, ``The Price of Admission," is to be believed. You can also buy your way into Duke -- home of the notorious ``development admits , " where fund-raisers collaborate on admissions decisions -- and many other top-tier universities in the country.

Golden's book is a well-reported critique of what amounts to affirmative action for rich people, who enjoy a panoply of preferences in the college admission process that outsiders could never dream of. The best-known examples are ``legacy" admissions for alumni children; scholarships reserved for upper-class sports, such as rowing; and the ultimate preference: dough. When you read how Harvard treats the children of its fat - cat Committee on University Resources -- who enjoy such perks as sit-downs with the director of admissions, personal campus tours, and access to the coveted ``Z-list" of deferred applicants -- suddenly real affirmative action for people who need it doesn't seem like such a bad idea.

The most egregious example of pay-for-Crimson - play is that of Jared Kushner , now the youthful owner of The New York Observer. While Jared was applying to colleges, his dad, New Jersey billionaire developer Charles Kushner , pledged $2.5 million to Harvard, to be paid in installments. (Kushner pere pleaded guilty to tax evasion and other counts in 2004 and recently completed a prison sentence.) An official at Kushner's high school told Golden: ``There was no way anybody in . . . the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard. His GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it. We thought, for sure, there was no way this was going to happen." Kushner graduated from Harvard in 2003.

A spokesman for Kushner said he would not be available for comment. In a prepared statement, Harvard admissions dean William Fitzsimmons affirmed that ``all students admitted to Harvard are fully qualified to be here."

A modest proposal
There is another rich people's preference that I would like to see abolished: the use of high-priced consultants who sometimes manage high schoolers' careers, and then more or less complete the college applications for them.

Although these services have spread like wildfire during the past 20 years -- indeed, I am a former customer -- the public got a rare glimpse of one during the recent Kaavya Viswanathan brouhaha. She was the Harvard undergrad who wrote -- well, actually, didn't write -- a book about a young woman like her who successfully gamed the college admissions process. It was revealed that when she was in high school, her parents retained a private college counseling service called IvyWise that charges as much as $30,000 for its work.

Here's my idea: Make applicants sign a statement saying they received no outside counseling in preparing their application. Or take the IRS Form 1040 route, which requires that you identify your tax preparer. If a high schooler used a consultant, say who it was. If one of the elite universities required this, the others would follow suit, and these consultants would be out of business.

College admissions types like to play down the value of these consultants. Could that be because one of the few lucrative job opportunities for former admissions officers happens to be as a $500-an-hour college admissions counselor? Just asking.

Yale dean of admissions Jeff Brenzel addressed this question at some length. He pointed out that applications used by both Yale and Harvard require the student to certify that the submission ``is my own work," and added: ``It is unfortunate that these consultants have gotten a foothold due to parental anxiety among the affluent. If parents are willing to have their children's high school careers managed on the basis of a false notion of what might appeal to a handful of selective colleges, then there's something seriously awry with the parental outlook."

Brenzel stopped short of signing on to my campaign to eliminate these parasites -- my word, not his -- altogether. ``It's an intriguing idea," he said. ``But I would be reluctant to get into the business of managing how students apply to college."

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.

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