From the issue dated January 12, 2007 

How Colleges Perpetuate Inequality

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

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

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

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

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. 
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 53, Issue 19, Page B9