AUTUMN AND a new academic year are upon us, which means that selective colleges are engaged in the annual ritual of singing the praises of their new freshman classes.
Surf the websites of such institutions and you will find press releases boasting that they have increased their black and Hispanic enrollments, admitted bumper crops of National Merit scholars or became the destination of choice for hordes of high school valedictorians. Many are bragging about the large share of applicants they rejected, as a way of conveying to the world just how popular and selective they are.
What they almost never say is that many of the applicants who were rejected were far more qualified than those accepted. Moreover, contrary to popular belief, it was not the black and Hispanic beneficiaries of affirmative action, but the rich white kids with cash and connections who elbowed most of the worthier applicants aside.
Researchers with access to closely guarded college admissions data have found that, on the whole, about 15 percent of freshmen enrolled at America's highly selective colleges are white teens who failed to meet their institutions' minimum admissions standards.
Five years ago, two researchers working for the Educational Testing Service, Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose, took the academic profiles of students admitted into 146 colleges in the top two tiers of Barron's college guide and matched them up against the institutions' advertised requirements in terms of high school grade point average, SAT or ACT scores, letters of recommendation, and records of involvement in extracurricular activities. White students who failed to make the grade on all counts were nearly twice as prevalent on such campuses as black and Hispanic students who received an admissions break based on their ethnicity or race.
Who are these mediocre white students getting into institutions such as Harvard, Wellesley, Notre Dame, Duke, and the University of Virginia? A sizable number are recruited athletes who, research has shown, will perform worse on average than other students with similar academic profiles, mainly as a result of the demands their coaches will place on them.
A larger share, however, are students who gained admission through their ties to people the institution wanted to keep happy, with alumni, donors, faculty members, administrators, and politicians topping the list.
Applicants who stood no chance of gaining admission without connections are only the most blatant beneficiaries of such admissions preferences. Except perhaps at the very summit of the applicant pile - that lofty place occupied by young people too brilliant for anyone in their right mind to turn down - colleges routinely favor those who have connections over those who don't. While some applicants gain admission by legitimately beating out their peers, many others get into exclusive colleges the same way people get into trendy night clubs, by knowing the management or flashing cash at the person manning the velvet rope.
Leaders at many selective colleges say they have no choice but to instruct their admissions offices to reward those who financially support their institutions, because keeping donors happy is the only way they can keep the place afloat. They also say that the money they take in through such admissions preferences helps them provide financial aid to students in need.
But many of the colleges granting such preferences are already well-financed, with huge endowments. And, in many cases, little of the money they take in goes toward serving the less-advantaged.
A few years ago, The Chronicle of Higher Education looked at colleges with more than $500 million in their endowments and found that most served disproportionately few students from families with incomes low enough to qualify for federal Pell Grants. A separate study of flagship state universities conducted by the Education Trust found that those universities' enrollments of Pell Grant recipients had been shrinking, even as the number of students qualifying for such grants had gone up.
Just 40 percent of the financial aid money being distributed by public colleges is going to students with documented financial need. Most such money is being used to offer merit-based scholarships or tuition discounts to potential recruits who can enhance a college's reputation, or appear likely to cover the rest of their tuition tab and to donate down the road.
Given such trends, is it any wonder that young people from the wealthiest fourth of society are about 25 times as likely as those from the bottom fourth to enroll in a selective college, or that, over the past two decades, the middle class has been steadily getting squeezed out of such institutions by those with more money?
A degree from a selective college can open many doors for a talented young person from a humble background. But rather than promoting social mobility, our nation's selective colleges appear to be thwarting it, by turning away applicants who have excelled given their circumstances and offering second chances to wealthy and connected young people who have squandered many of the advantages life has offered them.
When social mobility goes away, at least two dangerous things can happen. The privileged class that produces most of our nation's leaders can become complacent enough to foster mediocrity, and less-fortunate segments of our society can become resigned to the notion that hard work will not get them anywhere.
Given the challenges our nation faces, shouldn't its citizens be at least a little worried that the most selective public universities - state flagships - dominate the annual Princeton Review rankings of the nation's best party schools, as measured largely by drug and alcohol consumption and time spent skipping class and ditching the books?
Should Harvard, which annually turns away about 2,000 valedictorians and has an endowment of nearly $35 billion, be in the business of wasting its academic offerings on some students admitted on the basis of pedigree?
Peter Schmidt is a deputy editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education and author of "Color and Money: How Rich White Kids Are Winning the War Over College Affirmative Action."