By PETER SACKS
Colleges, once seen as beacons of egalitarian hope, are becoming bastions of wealth and privilege that perpetuate inequality. The chance of a low-income child obtaining a bachelor's degree has not budged in three decades: Just 6 percent of students from the lowest-income families earned a bachelor's degree by age 24 in 1970, and in 2002 still only 6 percent did. Lower still is that child's chance of attending one of America's top universities.
But while the growing class divide may be among the most compelling higher-education stories, political and educational leaders have been slow to respond. The rich and powerful of both the left and the right seem to have convinced them that confronting that divide comes at their peril. Members of America's ruling class have too much at stake, including family legacies, for their children not to follow in their footsteps to Harvard, Yale, or Michigan.
A growing number of scholars and journalists, however, are beginning to note the disturbing trends. Among them is Daniel Golden, whose recent book, The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates (Crown Publishers, 2006) details the myriad ways that, for those born with silver spoons, standards are relaxed and hands are held through every stage of the admissions process at selective colleges. In return for such favors, wealthy parents and donors lavish such institutions with money.
Those may not be astonishing revelations for some readers. But The Price of Admission, based upon articles that originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal, is nevertheless a remarkable piece of investigative reporting, confirming for readers what they perhaps long suspected. Golden names names and finds smoking guns. He devotes one chapter, for instance, to the rise of Duke University as an elite institution. By taking to unprecedented heights the practice of "development admits," Golden reports, it fudged academic standards for rich kids at the high price of "the integrity of [its] admissions process."
Golden paints a similar portrait of Harvard, the richest university on the planet with an endowment of more than $25-billion. He explains how it has perfected the art of producing wealthy, well-connected alumni who will generously give back to their alma mater. To do that, Harvard doesn't necessarily want the brightest students, but rather socially "well rounded" ones who are most likely to become highly paid executives, lawyers, or investment bankers, or powerful politicians. Thus, while its overall admission rate is about 9 percent, Golden figures the rate for students from families who are part of the Committee on University Resources, a select group of wealthy donors, is well over 50 percent.
And so it goes in Golden's condemning account, as he offers similar stories of legacy admissions at the University of Notre Dame and what he calls celebrity admissions at Brown University (where the media mogul Michael Ovitz seems to have parlayed fame and fortune into admission for his son, whom Golden describes as a mediocre student). After a host of admissions favors given to wealthy donors, legacies, and recruited athletes, the poor "unhooked" schmucks who must compete in the regular applicant pool have to "walk on water," as one Notre Dame official put it, to have any chance at such places. Elite-college admissions is corrupt, or at least corruptible, Golden suggests, because the influence of wealth and power is commonplace.
Unfortunately, the examples he cites start to blend together: Elite College X bends its standards to admit the children of the rich and famous. As a series of articles, that made for fascinating reading, but whether the material has enough depth and variety for a big-think book may be a question for readers familiar with recent trends in higher education.
Moreover, the ground Golden covers is but a chapter in the larger story of how higher education is infused with class biases, and the issues are thornier and more complex than he portrays. He doesn't explore, for example, how one's advantages or disadvantages from birth are compounded at each step of the education system by how colleges define merit and interact with families to reward the most privileged students.
Golden himself graduated from Harvard in 1974 and is the son of two professors. Who's to say that he was more deserving of a Harvard education than a son of a janitor from Topeka who scored 150 points lower on the SAT? While he tells us that he takes no position on the utility of the SAT as an accurate measure of merit, his narrative contradicts him at every turn. He can't make implicit judgments about the worthiness of a rich donor's son going to Harvard or Duke without using its average SAT as his standard.
But educational researchers have long understood that admissions-test scores correlate closely with parental income and education, making them a reflection of the cultural and educational capital that children acquire from families and schools. Thus, children of the intellectual elite are arguably as privileged in selective-college admissions as the children of rich donors. And if a rich donor's child with middling credentials gets into Harvard paying full tuition so that the janitor's son might get a scholarship, who is to say that the current system isn't better than a strictly "merit"-based one in which all candidates can be ranked by SAT scores and high-school grades?
The problem, as Golden rightly points out, is that elite colleges have largely ignored socioeconomic disadvantage in their calculations of merit and their definitions of diversity. The underlying reason for that failure, which Golden doesn't confront, is that higher education is simply a weird business. Gordon C. Winston, an economics professor at Williams College, has observed that colleges are part church and part car dealer. They often talk the talk of Martin Luther King Jr., but, as self-interested institutions focused on their own survival, they more often walk the walk of an investment banker. While corporations maximize profits for shareholders, private colleges are essentially in the business, not necessarily of imparting knowledge or contributing to the public good, but of maximizing their endowments. Yet, unlike corporations whose profits are a fairly straightforward result of some tangible production process, elite colleges' endowments derive from something far more intangible: reputation and prestige.
Thus, while such institutions are in the education game, they're also in the ratings game, chronicled year in and year out by U.S. News & World Report's annual list of "America's best colleges." According to U.S. News's worldview, one that has become received wisdom in popular culture, good colleges don't result from doing well by students; rather, "good" colleges are defined by how attractive their students are when they arrive on campus, often based on the average SAT score of the freshman class. Hence, colleges engage in all manner of sophisticated techniques for identifying, recruiting, and enrolling the kinds of students who will contribute to their prestige.
That elite colleges will serve the public good only as long as it does not interfere with their financial survival may be an important reason why they continue to support affirmative action. The relatively small number of members of underrepresented minority groups admitted has little impact on endowments, and racial preferences allow colleges to preserve definitions of merit that largely benefit children from affluent and well-educated families that donate money. Elite institutions would be hard pressed not to advocate affirmative action while offering equivalent preferences to children of alumni — a largely white and affluent group. Indeed, Golden argues rather persuasively that it was the link between legacy and racial preferences that saved affirmative action in the Supreme Court's 2003 rulings in the University of Michigan cases. He notes that five of the nine justices had qualified for a legacy preference themselves or had children who had.
At the admissions gate, where college officials decide who to enroll, low-income students have few, if any, advocates. Nevertheless, the rhetoric of college presidents on behalf of such students continues to amplify. For instance, at the "Politics of Inclusion: Higher Education at a Crossroads" conference in September at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I watched the president of the College of William and Mary, Gene R. Nichol, give a stirring speech about the need for elite institutions to pay more attention to socioeconomic disadvantage, suggesting that the rhetoric of inclusiveness was surpassing actual practice. He might have offered his own institution as a case in point: Just 8 percent of its undergraduates during one recent year were eligible for Pell Grants.
Even though The Price of Admission discusses but a small part of the class divide in higher education, one hopes that it will entice more people to focus on an issue that isn't getting nearly enough attention. Our collective failure to come to grips with the reality of our exclusionary system will lead to unfortunate economic consequences for the entire nation. Already, the signs are evident that the United States will get its proverbial lunch eaten in the global marketplace, as other countries are aggressively expanding educational opportunity while, here, the rich and powerful enjoy a new Gilded Age, policy makers continue to ruminate, and college presidents continue to give stirring speeches.
Studies underscoring the problem continue to pile up. A report from the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assist-ance, an independent panel that advises Congress, found that during the 1990s between 1 million and 1.6 million college-qualified high-school graduates from low- and moderate-income families did not complete a bachelor's degree, presumably because of financial constraints. This decade, the committee estimates, between 1.4 million and 2.4 million additional bachelor's degrees will be lost to our economy.
The latest of the alarming reports comes from the College Board in its recent book, College Access: Opportunity or Privilege?, edited by the economists Michael S. McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation, and Morton Owen Schapiro, president of Williams College. The book, based on papers and presentations from a 2005 conference, isn't as scintillating as The Price of Admission, but it portrays higher education's looming crisis of access with the complexity that the subject deserves.
There are no easy answers or obvious villains. For all but the richest institutions, enrolling more low-income students boils down to a trade-off: Do you provide full scholarships to a limited number of low-income students who meet existing admissions criteria for grades and test scores, or do you greatly expand access but provide limited amounts of financial aid for needy students?
Indeed, virtually all of the highly publicized efforts by top institutions — Harvard, the University of Virginia, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and others ensuring that needy students graduate debt free — are financially feasible because so few lower-income students are admitted. Even if elite colleges don't deliberately limit their numbers of low-income students, their definitions of merit and their prestige-driven enrollment-management practices produce that result.
Many more lower-income students, however, could probably succeed quite nicely at even the most selective colleges than those institutions have been willing to take in. In one of the more provocative papers in College Access, Gordon Winston and Catharine B. Hill, then a professor of economics at Williams and now president of Vassar College, contrast the demand for lower-income students at 28 elite private institutions with the national supply of such students scoring at different intervals on the SAT. Some 70 percent of the students at those colleges come from families in the highest income quintile, and just 10 percent come from families in the bottom two quintiles.
While the authors have a maddening tendency to suggest that SAT performance and "ability" are equivalent concepts — a careless and highly debatable assumption — I would suggest that their data do powerfully demonstrate that the highly skewed representation of lower-income students at the 28 elite colleges stems primarily from the SAT. Thus, if those institutions truly wanted to create more socioeconomic diversity, they would open up the SAT filter. For instance, suppose the colleges were to set their target SAT average at 1110, which is perhaps 200 points below their existing average. To match the national percentages of lower-income students, the 28 colleges would have to increase their yearly enrollments of such students by 3,300. As to whether there are enough lower-income students to meet that demand, the answer is overwhelmingly clear: In 2003 there were at least 109,000 such students across the nation, and perhaps many more, considering that many low-income test takers do not report family-income data.
Winston and Hill's interpretation of the results is on the grim side because they appear to believe that selective colleges would be setting their sights too low by relaxing SAT targets to 1110. "What's happened to low-income students before they reach college age means that few are in a position to take advantage of a highly demanding and selective education, even at a very low price," they write.
That assertion strikes me as condescending, at best, and terribly elitist, at worst. More than enough lower-income students are prepared to succeed at elite colleges, even by the standards of merit that those institutions hold dear. While defenders of the status quo warn that relaxing SAT averages would lead to the dumbing down of our great higher-education institutions, research documenting efforts to diminish the influence of test scores has demonstrated that the dire warnings are unfounded.
For example, in a study on the effectiveness of the SAT I to predict college performance at the University of California, the researchers Saul Geiser and Roger Studley examined 78,000 student records from a four-year period, finding that the SAT I was the poorest predictor of college performance when compared with high-school grades and the SAT II subject tests. In fact, the SAT I added no predictive value beyond what could be gleaned from grades and SAT II test scores.
No, the reason selective colleges are socioeconomically homogenous is because most of them do not have a business model that can feasibly accommodate an influx of needy students. Take the dilemma of Bryn Mawr College, which David W. Breneman, dean of the school of education at the University of Virginia and a professor there, described in College Access. While highly selective, it is among the top of its peers in institutional financial aid but has a relatively modest endowment. So it is pressured to keep tuition high (and the discount rate off the sticker price low) while holding the line on costs, which is reflected in its comparatively low faculty salaries.
"The ensuing balancing act that is necessary to lower the discount rate while still attracting and helping to finance low-income students is a constant tension that the college faces," writes Breneman. "For all but the wealthiest colleges, it serves no purpose to ignore this financial dilemma and strike moral poses; many colleges simply must enroll a reasonable percentage of full-pay students in order to balance the budget." At the other end of the selectivity scale, Breneman outlines the challenges facing public institutions like the University of Illinois at Chicago, where fully 37 percent of undergraduates receive Pell Grants.
Where is the solution to this puzzle? For his part, Golden challenges colleges to adhere to "wealth blind" admissions: They should abolish preferences and build ethical fire walls between admissions and development offices to prevent conflicts of interest. Some of his suggestions may be financially feasible and also modestly increase the enrollments of lower-income students at some exclusive colleges. The key word here is modestly. If our best colleges really wanted to open their gates to lower-income students, they would use admissions tests like the SAT a lot more creatively — if they used them at all.
Meanwhile, Harvard recently garnered widespread attention and praise for its decision to end its early-admissions program, suggesting that such admissions programs are unfair to lower-income students. But a far bolder move by Harvard or Princeton — which quickly followed Harvard's lead — would be to stop cooperating with the U.S. News rankings. Highly regarded Reed College has refused to do so since the mid-1990s, following disclosures that some colleges were manipulating data to rise in the rankings. Playing Sopranoesque hardball in apparent retaliation, the magazine refused Reed's request to be dropped, arbitrarily assigning it to second-tier status.
The magazine could play no such games with the likes of Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, which have sufficient stocks of institutional prestige to go on building endowment regardless of the rankings. But their opting out of the rankings game would produce incalculable social benefits, not least of which is the rankings' probable demise. Smaller, less-wealthy colleges like Bryn Mawr or Reed could pursue their missions without having to compete in a prestige-driven arms race that relentlessly pressures them to maintain SAT averages, limiting their willingness to enroll more needy students.
But the financial constraints remain. Policy makers looking to expand socioeconomic diversity at institutions that have culturally and economically evolved on the premise of exclusivity — to which national leadership in business, politics, and education has been closely wedded — face an imposing task.
Perhaps the existing business model will eventually change, whereby a renaissance in government support for lower-income students occurs as leaders grasp the seriousness of America's economic prospects on the global stage. Perhaps, too, that same renaissance will come to the aid of ailing public institutions, which the nation has historically charged with educating the vast majority of students of modest means. As the saying goes, watch what they do, not what they say.
Peter Sacks is author of Standardized Minds: The High Price of America's Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It (Perseus Books, 1999). His new book, Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education, will be published in May by the University of California Press.