California Literary Review

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


April 24th, 2007 at 4:24 am

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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
Crown Publishers, 323 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★☆☆

Affirmative Action for the Rich and Famous

When I was a college student, I agreed—as a favor to a friend—to be the overnight host for a prospective legacy student, which is the academic world means a potential student who has at least one alumni parent. I was busy, but said I’d put him up into an empty room next to mine, and would take him to dinner.

The empty dorm room next to me was tiny and a bit dirty—if I recall, that’s why it was unoccupied—and the student bristled. Unbeknownst to me, he found the room and my vague indifference unacceptable, called his mom, had her pick him up, and the next morning, I awoke to a phone call from an admissions office person who literally began our conversation with: “Tell me your side of the story.”

Only then did it dawn on me that I had alienated the family of a potential donor. And given the anger of this early morning phone call, I imagine that it must have been someone with the potential to donate a lot of money.

Money dominates far greater a percentage of admissions than colleges—who are desperate to boost endowments to maintain rankings in national publications—like to admit, and that drive for money results in admissions preferences for legacy alumni and students of wealthier parents. For people in the academic world, this is relatively common knowledge.

But this regime of preferences is not necessarily public knowledge, and Daniel Golden, author of The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys its Way into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates, does a nice job in this exhaustively reported volume of bringing to light this system that gives a leg up to “hooked” privileged kids, and makes the college admissions process more difficult for kids from less affluent backgrounds.

Golden bases much of his argument on SAT scores, class rankings, and grades from individual students. And although it left me feeling, at times, like I was 17 again and agonizing over the value of 10 SAT points, his reporting is exhaustive and impressive.

Golden focuses on several specific groups of students who receive preferential treatment in college admissions. Legacy students are perhaps the most well-known, and gain advantage due to the likelihood that their parents will donate money to the university.

In a similar vein, the children of rich and famous parents enjoy significant advantages over other high school students. Thus, Golden notes, did Chris Ovitz—son of Hollywood super agent Michael Ovitz—gain admission to Brown University after an undistinguished high school career as a “special student,” a designation given to students who hope to take one or two non-degree courses. Only in Ovitz’s case, his special student status was used as a backdoor entry to Brown. Chris Ovitz departed Brown within a year and eventually graduated from UCLA with a degree in history.

But Golden also identifies a number of less obvious forms of preference. Because universities often give free or significantly reduced tuition to the children of faculty—a break that may or may not be transferable to other universities—professors at elite institutions go to great lengths to ensure that their children can gain admissions, regardless of their qualifications.

More surprisingly, high school athletes in upper class sports, like lacrosse or crew, can gain sizable admissions advantages, and scholarships, that will allow a student to overcome a mediocre high school record. The specific advantage comes from the fact that many urban high schools lack the resources to field teams in sports like golf or skiing, and as a result, athletes from more affluent schools have a wider array of options that help them gain a foothold into academic programs.

In noting this problem of athlete preference, Golden refutes the misconception that poor and minority students benefit disproportionately from athletic scholarships. And perhaps more importantly, he highlights the socioeconomic factors—outside of a direct line to a college admissions officer—that make admissions easier for the “hooked” students. He moves beyond test scores, in other words, to look at the range of factors that keep the education system unequal and prevent it from being the sort of great meritocracy that Golden advocates.

This sense of context, however, is largely lacking from the rest of The Price of Admission, and ultimately renders Golden’s work interesting, but far too myopic.

Thus, for example, much of Golden’s case relies on competing SAT scores that show that some “hooked” student’s performance was substantially worse than an unhooked student, and yet the hooked student—children of Al Gore and Bill Frist, for example—are the ones who get to go to Harvard. But Golden ignores a body of research that demonstrates that the SAT is not a terribly reliable predictor of academic success.

And more oddly, he neglects the industry of test preparation outfits like Kaplan and the Princeton Review that charge the parents of high school students on the order of $1,000 for test-taking strategy classes. And of course, those students who get expensive SAT tutoring enjoy huge advantages over the students who can barely afford to take the test itself.

While Golden treats SAT scores as some great marker of achievement, he would have actually strengthened his case by taking a bit of time to show how their use further tilts admissions against poorer students.

Nor does Golden take the time to explore the relationship between large alumni donations and the actual quality of education that these well-funded universities provide. How do these students affect the quality of education at big name universities? And why would a university like Harvard, with an endowment valued well above $20 billion, want to admit a student just to get another $1 million donation?

For that matter, how much does admission to an elite college help someone? I realize this is hard to quantify, but in the process of reading about the less than stellar academic records of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, or the children of national politicians and billionaires, I couldn’t help but think that it does not matter in any way where they go to college. They are rich. They are well-connected. How much could a prestigious bachelor’s degree really help?

To be fair, Golden focuses as much on upper-middle class kids as on the ludicrously wealthy. And he does spend a bit of time discussing the effects—generally negative—that preferential treatment has on “unhooked” students. He notes that Asian American students, in particular, feel the brunt of this system in which they lack the social and financial connections to gain an advantage, yet do not receive the same sort of affirmative action considerations that other minority groups receive.

But The Price of Admission does not press much beyond that, and this is deeply unfortunate. Golden is an immensely talented reporter—the work that formed the basis for this book earned him a Pulitzer Prize—and he could have used those considerable talents to examine much, much more about the relationship between education and inequality in the United States.
Instead, he has highlighted a major problem with the college admissions process. And while it is a major problem, it is symptomatic of more systemic problems in education that Golden never takes the time to explore.

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