Neal Gabler

The college admissions scam

By Neal Gabler
January 10, 2010

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NOW IS the winter of high school seniors’ discontent. But then every winter is one of discontent as seniors file their college applications with a mix of dread and hope - mainly dread. Those applying to the most selective schools have the odds stacked against them no matter how sterling their high school records, though college admissions officers typically offer the cold comfort that rejection is not equivalent to failure and that, as one Yale admissions officer put it, “It matters far less which strong college admits you than it matters what you do with your opportunities once you are there.’’ To which most high school seniors would say, “Hogwash.’’

They know that it does matter where you go to college, if not educationally then in terms of social recognition and opportunity. They know that America, for all its professions of meritocracy, is a virtual oligarchy where the graduates of the Ivies and the other best schools enjoy tremendous advantages in the job market. They know that Harvard or Stanford or MIT is a label in our “designer education’’ not unlike Chanel or Prada in clothes.

So here is another, more realistic comfort to those anxious seniors who will soon be flagellating themselves as unworthy: The admissions system of the so-called “best’’ schools is rigged against you. If you are a middle-class youth or minority from poor circumstances, you have little chance of getting in to one of those schools. Indeed, the system exists not to provide social mobility but to prevent it and to perpetuate the prevailing social order.

Of course, colleges loudly deny this since it undermines their exceptionality. Instead, universities will protest that the system is meritocratic; that they consider every applicant objectively; that the admissions process is “need blind,’’ which means that financial support plays no role in whether an applicant is admitted or not.

Most of these assertions, however, are nonsense. Of course the odds are stacked against every applicant since the best schools admit only a fraction of them (less than 10 percent for most of the Ivies and just above 25 percent for selective schools like Northwestern and Emory), but as 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. As Golden puts it, the privileged take so many spots that the “admissions odds against middle-class and working-class students with outstanding records are even longer than the colleges acknowledge.’’

Golden’s focus was on legacy admissions, which are essentially affirmative action for the rich and which provide huge advantages for applicants; on what are called special “development’’ applicants - thosewho do not qualify for admission under the ordinary criteria but whose parents have pledged large contributions to the school; and athletes who are, contrary to popular belief, not all poor ghetto kids adept at football and basketball, but are primarily wealthy white kids who are adept at lacrosse, rugby, crew and polo.

But while these are overt ways to provide advantages for the wealthy, there are far more insidious and subtle methods of skewing the admissions process. Take early admissions. Early admissions account for 35 percent of the incoming class at Duke this year, 20 percent at Brown, 50 percent at Yale and 40 percent at Stanford. Under most programs, early admittees are obligated to attend that school should they be granted admission. But early admissions favor the wealthy - in part because they are able to forgo weighing options for financial aid.

Then there is the “well-rounded student body’’ argument, which any parent accompanying his child on the college tour rounds has heard ad nauseam. According to this approach, colleges are not looking for the well-rounded individual student. They are aiming instead for a diverse student body: an exceptional athlete, an exceptional musician, an exceptional scientist, an exceptional poet. Except that exceptionality, as most parents can attest, doesn’t come cheap. Athletes require coaching and often traveling teams; musicians require lessons and instruments; scientists require labs and internships; poets require classes and opportunities for publication. None of these things is readily available to the average middle-class family, to say nothing of the high school student who must work at McDonald’s to earn spending money (even though colleges say they take this into account).

Nor does diversity extend to racial composition. Of course every college boasts about its efforts to enroll a more racially diverse student body. But here are the facts: A New York Times article in 2004 revealed that Harvard’s incoming freshman class was 9 percent black, but between one-half and two-thirds of those black students were actually West Indian or African immigrants or the children of immigrants, and many others were biracial. In short, they weren’t African-American. Another 2004 study, conducted by Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania, also found that 41 percent of blacks at 28 selective colleges and universities identified themselves as immigrants, underscoring the West Indian and African component.

The prognosis is equally poor for economically disadvantaged students, whether black or white. According to Golden, economic diversity counts the least in admission considerations, and only 3-to-11 percent of admittees come from the lowest economic quartile. In fairness, some universities, including Harvard, are offering full scholarships to financially strapped families, but this does not necessarily affect the admission of those students.

A counselor told me when my daughters were applying for college admission that the first thing I had to do was withdraw my application for financial aid. When I said that colleges professed to be “need blind,’’ she laughed. Any admissions officer, she said, could tell from your zip code whether you were likely to need aid or not, and students needing aid were much less desirable than those who didn’t need it.

But perhaps the most pernicious means of maintaining the status quo was devised, ironically, in the name of making the system more meritocratic. No one disputes that once upon a time elite schools were the preserve of wealth and influence. When the SAT was instituted in the 1920s it was done precisely in the name of changing the admissions process to a more egalitarian one. By providing an allegedly objective measure of a student’s intellect, the best schools could no longer be castigated as impregnable. Do well, get in. At least that’s what middle-class Americans dreaming of their children’s social advancement have been told.

In truth, the SAT, which is thankfully being phased out at many schools, has had the opposite effect. Far from opening the doors of elite schoools to outstanding students from ordinary backgrounds, it has wound up giving an objective patina to an unjust process. In some ways it is the great subterfuge. That’s because SAT scores correlate highly to family income - an average of 12 point increments for every $20,000 of income, which this year amounted to a 130 difference on critical reasoning, 80 points on math and 70 on writing between the lowest income and highest income groups. While correlation isn’t always causality, economics professor Jesse Rothstein of Berkeley has called it a proxy for other demographic components and for high school resources. And, not surprisingly, Professor George Kuh of Indiana University, has found that the US News list of best colleges has an almost 100 percent correlation to SAT scores, which means that the so-called best schools could just as easily be ranked by family income.

So here’s the bottom line for all those exceptional middle-class and lower-class high school seniors who will doubt their own worth when the near-inevitable rejection letters arrive: The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in you. The fault lies in the system, and the system isn’t going to change, because it benefits the people it is designed to benefit - people who understand how much a real meritocracy would threaten their power.

Neal Gabler is the author, most recently, of “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.’’