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One of the many casualties of our national obsession with the war on
Iraq is the emerging crisis of America's public colleges and
universities.

In a nation that nominally eschews class distinctions as unbefitting our
supposed classlessness, whose elected officials decry any protest over
government largesse to the rich as "class warfare," real Americans--most
of whom are suckers, it turns out--spend untold amounts of time, cash
and effort obsessing on a
tiny number of elite colleges that really, really don't want the vast
majority of them as members.

Never mind, though. For an increasing number of baby boomer parents,
it's never too early to stick kids on the Harvard-
or-bust fast track. It starts with Mozart and Shakespeare in the crib,
and then it's off to the $8,000-a-year and up nursery school that admits
toddlers on the basis of IQ tests (performance on which is heavily
influenced by the educational attainment of the child's parents). The
proper nursery school inexorably leads to the high-powered kindergarten
and prep school and eventually to thousands of dollars more in fees for
college consultants and standardized testing tutors.

Before a child can say "meritocracy," he or she is embarking on an
overseas adventure to New Guinea that will lead, by design, to that
killer college application essay that wows admissions counselors from
Harvard, Yale or Princeton for its originality and sense of social and
democratic purpose, a tonier version of the Miss America contestant's
"I'm for world peace" speech.

If all the time and effort devoted to this enterprise were about a
child's or young person's love of learning, creativity and personal
development, I for one would be considerably less cynical. But the elite
college admissions game--under the near-tyrannical guidance of US News
& World Report
's annual ranking of the nation's "best" colleges--is
all too often about the pursuit of prestige at almost any cost, a game
that perpetuates the big lie that one can't find a decent education at
anything less than a Brand Name school.

I was excited to read Jacques Steinberg's new book about elite college
admissions, The Gatekeepers, anticipating a breath of fresh air on the
subject from the New York Times education reporter. As he introduces
himself and his book, we learn that this son of a Massachusetts
anesthesiologist sees himself as a sort of accidental alumnus of the Ivy
League, who pleads ignorance as to how he got admitted to Dartmouth in
the early 1980s. But he obviously owes a lot to his very assertive mom,
a former nurse, who on the family's exploratory visit to the Dartmouth
campus grabbed her son by the collar after an admissions officer's spiel
and strode to the front of the room to magisterially inform the
official, "We're the Steinbergs." The rest, as they say, is history.

Steinberg strikes me as a lucky man indeed. After joining the Times and
becoming a national education correspondent, he attended the 1999
conference of the National Association of College Admission Counseling
in Orlando, Florida. While there, he was approached by William Hiss, an
administrator at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Hiss wondered whether
Steinberg would like exclusive access to the selective college's
admissions process, noteworthy in that it does not require applicants to
submit SAT or ACT scores. Although Steinberg and his editor, Ethan
Bronner, were intrigued by the idea, they declined Hiss's offer in favor
of a less "anomalous" college--i.e., one that continued to rely on
gatekeeping tests like the SAT.

After being turned down by several colleges for the kind of exclusive,
total-access deal the Times wanted, Steinberg found what would seem a
perfect match. At Wesleyan, located in Middletown, Connecticut, midway
between Hartford and New Haven, college officials agreed to provide the
reporter unfettered access to its admissions process from fall 1999 to
spring 2000, culminating in the Times's series of articles upon which
The Gatekeepers is based. Wesleyan agreed not to meddle in Steinberg's
stories, gave him access to individual students and their families and
allowed him to observe any and all meetings in its admissions
deliberations--in other words, a reporter's dream assignment. (It
couldn't have hurt Steinberg's cause that his boss, Bronner, graduated
from Wesleyan in 1976, as one discovers in the book's acknowledgments.)

It's all very cozy and well connected in these pages, with lucky people
and impressive degrees from prestigious institutions to spare. When we
meet Steinberg's featured "gatekeeper," a Wesleyan admissions officer
named Ralph Figueroa, a Los Angeles native who ends up in Middletown
after a stint working admissions at Occidental College in LA, I'm
thinking, cool choice. This ought to be interesting, a Mexican-American
man with a working-class background (the rebel in me hopes), now an
insider shaking things up at one elite private college in comfy New
England.

Instead, we learn that the 34-year-old Figueroa's dad was a lawyer and
graduate of Loyola Law School; that his mom earned a master's degree in
education, and became a mover and shaker in an organization called
Expanded Horizons, a nationally recognized program (held in high regard
by Ronald Reagan and his Education Secretary, Terrel Bell) that helped
Mexican-American kids prepare for college. The family frequently took
their children on trips to colleges like Pomona, Occidental and Caltech.
The grooming and preparation paid off for the Figueroa clan. Ralph
graduated from Stanford--he turned down Harvard, Yale and Princeton--and
went on to UCLA Law. His several siblings also attended elite schools,
including UCLA Law and Stanford Law, and one sister, like himself, would
find a niche in admissions at Caltech.

As if adopting the same mesmerizing tricks as the colleges themselves,
holding out the impossible dream of an elite college education to the
masses in order to up their application counts (which improves
selectivity rankings), Steinberg and his publisher pitch this book as
"required reading for every parent of a high school age child and for
every student" who is applying to college. But it's easy to imagine
ordinary parents and their kids--the overwhelming majority of whom
attend ordinary public high schools that aren't even remotely on the map
of "feeder" schools highly regarded by elite colleges--being completely
intimidated by this book. I could scarcely find one person in these
pages, whether an admissions officer or student, whose parents weren't
at least modestly well educated or who didn't have some connection to
either a brand-name college or elite prep school. Most of the admissions
officers at Wesleyan were either Wesleyan grads or had connections to
other elite schools (a fairly common trait, from what I can tell, among
the admissions staffs at elite private colleges). In fact, I was able to
find just one student in Steinberg's world whose parents had not
attended college, a most admirable young New Yorker named Aggie. But
even she managed to find her way out of a downtrodden public school in
New York City to the Oldfields School, a venerable girls' prep school in
rural Maryland.

But let's be real. Readers of this book will more likely be the
well-educated parents and high-flying students who do attend schools
that are "on the map," and for whom prestigious colleges and personal
connections to those schools are all part of the entitlement package;
people for whom "state university" is a dirty word. And though Steinberg
is skillful at telling the stories of Ralph and a handful of young
people who apply to Wesleyan and other highly ranked colleges, I can
easily imagine sophisticated readers sighing a collective, "So what?"
There's very little in Steinberg's highly detailed narrative that such
readers won't already have surmised about the competitive admissions
game.

When highly selective colleges talk about their admissions process to
prospective students, they like to convey the notion that there are no
formulas, no tricks, no standard combination of grades or test scores
that will insure one's admission. It's standard advice that Steinberg,
who calls the process "messy," would undoubtedly agree with. True, there
may be no magic formulas, but colleges like Wesleyan do pass their
judgments about individuals under some mighty formulaic parameters.
Readers probably won't be surprised to learn that Wesleyan admissions
officials watch their ranking in US News & World Report like nuclear
plant operators monitoring reactor heat levels. In fact, Steinberg
describes one seasoned admissions officer, Greg Pyke, whose task is to
keep running tabs on median SAT levels and other indicators of the
admitted class important to US News, in order to insure that the college
improves upon its previous year ranking.

The most revealing aspects of the process can be gleaned between the
lines of Steinberg's account. For example, many students and parents who
buy into this game have long known that test scores play a very
important, if not decisive, role in it. Recent surveys by the National
Association of College Admission Counseling confirm this. According to
NACAC's December 2001 survey, fully 86 percent of admissions officials
rated test scores as of either considerable or moderate importance, just
slightly below the importance the gatekeepers attach to grades in
college prep courses (89 percent).

As competition for admission has intensified and acceptance rates have
declined at elite private colleges in recent years, the weight attached
to gatekeeping tests has also increased, according to a recent report by
the Association for Institutional Research. Meanwhile, private colleges
have soured on high school grades, arguably a more egalitarian indicator
of merit and once the most important criterion in admissions, this
despite the well-known correlation between SAT scores and the
educational and income levels of one's parents.

Steinberg, like the admissions officers who are his subjects, is rarely
as explicit about these matters as the data presented in those surveys.
But parents and kids who know the game won't bat an eye at how heavily
colleges rely on gatekeeping tests, their claims to the contrary
notwithstanding. For example, Wesleyan admissions officers seem to think
that a 50- or 100-point difference in SAT scores among two candidates
means something significant about their future academic performance in
college, a patently false use of test scores. Steinberg, ever
nonjudgmental, allows such assumptions to pass virtually unchallenged,
although they have been powerfully refuted in numerous studies. Bates,
the SAT-optional college that first approached Steinberg, discovered no
differences between the academic performance of Bates students who
declined to submit SAT scores when applying, and that of SAT-submitters,
whose test scores were, on average, 160 points higher.

Deeply ingrained beliefs in the power of cognitive screens like the SAT
and about the importance of good grades in AP courses were not the only
things at the top of Wesleyan's gatekeeping criteria. There were two
additional ones, earmarked by a manila folder. "If an applicant was the
child of an alumna or alumnus, a dark orange square was added,"
Steinberg writes. "If an applicant had identified him- or herself as a
member of a minority group, a yellow circle was added. These details
were considered too important for a reader to overlook, and the coding
system was designed to ensure that they were given due attention."

Within these strictures Wesleyan's gatekeepers exercised a small degree
of wiggle room, and Steinberg does his best work describing the
difficult process of selecting a class of some 700 students from about
7,000 applications. Grateful, perhaps, for the access Wesleyan gave him,
he writes admiringly of the gatekeepers' studious commitment to be fair
and objective. But parents with high-school-age children are likely to
be appalled at the inconsistencies, and even arbitrary nature, of some
of the judgments made by Figueroa and his colleagues. The SAT, for
instance, which is often described by admissions officials, the College
Board and the Educational Testing Service as a "common yardstick," looks
more like a magic stick out of Alice in Wonderland, meaning whatever
Wesleyan's gatekeepers want it to mean, depending on whether the
applicant is a member of a minority group, an athlete or a member of the
Wesleyan "family." Isn't meritocracy grand?

Meanwhile, Andrew Fairbanks, a former Wesleyan admissions official, has
given us a very different account of elite college admissions, in a book
written with Christopher Avery and Richard Zeckhauser, both professors
at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. While Steinberg uses
character and nar-
rative to reveal the inner workings of one college's admissions process,
the authors of The Early Admissions Game: Joining the Elite seek to
expose this often-deceitful and manipulated game in order to make it
more fair to all comers. Indeed, they say they hope to arm more students
and parents with information on how the game is played, and therefore
help to reduce the unfair advantages the present system affords
well-connected and affluent students. Although the book is focused on a
detailed investigation of early admissions programs, its reach is far
broader, if only because early admissions has become such a key element
of competitive college-recruitment efforts in recent years. As one
student who was recently admitted to Harvard told the authors, "That's
just how you apply to Harvard."

Although the writing lacks the journalistic polish of Steinberg's
account, and although the organization is at times disjointed, readers
seeking solid information about elite college admissions will find The
Early Admissions Game refreshingly frank. Other readers concerned about
restoring some equity to the process will also appreciate the book's
generosity of spirit and suggestions for reform.

The authors present a devastating portrait of elite college
admissions--and early admissions in particular--as an elaborate and
complicated "game" in the most literal meaning of that word, played by
colleges seeking competitive advantages over rivals, students seeking to
maximize their opportunities for entry into prestigious colleges and
school counselors striving to maintain the reputations of their "feeder"
schools in terms of their efficiency in placing students at highly
ranked colleges. As in all competitive games, the various players often
have little incentive to be forthcoming about their tactics and every
incentive to conceal strategic information from public view. Not
surprisingly, the authors suggest, the winners of the game tend to be
privileged students who have access to highly skilled counselors with
information pipelines to elite college admissions offices.

At the center of the book is a social scientific investigation that
makes powerful analytical use of admissions data at elite colleges
spanning several years and including some 500,000 college applications,
which reveals a fascinating statistical portrait of early admissions.
(Early admissions programs include both "early decision" ones, which
permit just one early application and bind students to that college if
they are admitted, and "early action" programs, which allow multiple
applications and do not bind students to colleges that accept them
early.) In public, most institutions are quick to reassure students and
parents that there's no advantage to applying early as opposed to
waiting to throw one's hat into the "regular" admissions pool. But the
advantages afforded early applications are considerable.

Consider Princeton. One need only note the increasingly small number of
openings remaining from the regular admissions pool to see why many
students who don't walk on water might find it in their best interest to
apply early. Of the 2,000 students admitted in one recent year at
Princeton, for instance, only 500 had applied during the regular
admissions cycle. The rest were either early applicants or "hooked"
applicants (underrepresented minorities, athletes or children of
alumni).

At Princeton, which runs an early decision program, the authors estimate
that while its acceptance rate from the regular applicant pool was
slightly below 20 percent, the college's acceptance rate for early
applicants ballooned to well over 50 percent. The same pattern held for
virtually all the highly selective colleges in the authors' study. At
Columbia, for example, more than seven in ten students who applied early
were admitted, compared with about three in ten students applying during
the regular period.

When colleges concede such glaring differences in their admissions
rates, they explain that early applicants tend to be more attractive
candidates in terms of test scores, grades and other factors. The
authors easily destroy this canard by comparing early and regular
admission rates for students with similar credentials. Applying early to
elite colleges, they demonstrate, produces the equivalent of a 100-point
SAT boost for early action applicants and a 190-point boost for early
decision applicants. For the time-strapped student oddsmaker, the game
presents some interesting choices. Spend $1,000 on an SAT prep course,
or apply early? "Which is easier?" the authors ask. "To submit an early
application? Or to master the trombone to the level of all-state
orchestra or become a semifinalist in the Westinghouse Science
Competition?"

So what's in it for the colleges? Why give early decision applicants the
equivalent of nearly 200 points on the SAT? Part of the answer, it
seems, is that they have an Enron problem. The unfortunate fact of elite
college admissions in the era of US News & World Report is that the
magazine's annual ranking of the nation's best colleges now rules this
marketplace with an iron fist. The magazine operates under the fiction
that college quality is tantamount to median SAT scores, acceptance
rates and other more arcane measures such as "yield" rates, defined as
the percentage of the admitted students who decide to enroll--which
might be more accurately dubbed the "prestige index." In any case,
colleges have discovered how early admission programs easily permit them
to manipulate numbers in order to elevate, however marginally, their US
News
rankings. For example, an early decision applicant will almost
certainly enroll, thus instantly boosting the college's yield rate.

Who takes most advantage of early admissions and its generous payoffs?
Primarily children from affluent families, students for whom a college's
financial aid offer isn't a deal breaker. Because early decision
programs in particular lock needy students into a single college, they
are unable to compare or negotiate financial aid packages among schools.
The authors contend that colleges also exploit the monopoly power
granted through early decision programs in order to hold down their
financial aid budgets. Furthermore, students with access to good
information about early admission programs, including their improved
chances of admission, also gain. And, again, such students tend to be
affluent. Reliable information, the authors found, is a function of
whether students attend public high schools where many students do not
go to college or elite private schools and highly regarded public
schools where most students do attend college.

Among the most compelling passages in The Early Admissions Game is its
description of the elaborate, back-channel "slotting" operations by
which highly skilled and well-connected high school counselors work hand
in hand with elite college admissions officers to place students. To
outsiders, such collaboration might be scandalous, but for some students
recently accepted to places like Harvard and Yale whom the authors
interviewed, it's rather ho-hum. Listen to Mira (Harvard '98): "My
counselor has a good relationship with the Harvard admissions office. He
handpicks people for admission and tells Harvard who to admit." Or Dan
(Yale '98): "If I wanted to attend Yale, [the counselor] would get me
in."

No book could paint such a damning portrait without offering suggestions
for reform of a system that produces such inequitable results. The
authors discuss various options, including the frequently suggested
proposal that colleges agree to a ban on early admission programs.
That's not likely to fly, the authors argue, because any given college
would have great incentive to violate the ban by picking off its
competitors' most promising applicants. "If we gave it up," Harvard
admissions dean William Fitzsimmons suggested, "other institutions
inside and outside the Ivy League would carve up our class and our
faculty would carve us up."

As an alternative to the current system, the authors propose to set up
an independent, Internet-operated clearinghouse, through which students
could state their first preference for college without a binding
commitment. The clearinghouse would share the information among all
participating colleges in order to preclude any deception. Colleges,
which currently spend a great deal of money on statistical models trying
to predict which students will ultimately enroll, could rely instead on
the students' stated preferences. Such a simple, relatively inexpensive
solution would also diminish the importance of the sorts of back-channel
slotting operations that now give privileged applicants such an
advantage in the early admissions game.

Meanwhile, however, there's little reason to hope the game will become
more equitable anytime soon. Elite colleges appear eager to install
early admissions programs as fixtures for building and managing their
entering classes. As of December, for example, the University of
Pennsylvania had already filled nearly half its freshman class with
early admits. At Yale and Columbia, more than 40 percent of entering
classes was already spoken for. Millions more high school students from
increasingly well-educated families will continue to place their hopes
and dreams on a tiny fraction of colleges that admit an increasingly
smaller percentage of those
who apply. At Harvard, for example, the acceptance rate of 11 percent in
the year 2000 was nearly half what it was in 1990. By midyear, testing
companies had reported surges in registrations for taking entrance
exams, with ACT Inc. boasting its biggest gain in thirty-five years.

All this in a nation where nearly 40 percent of adults believe they
currently are, or will be, among the richest 1 percent of Americans. Who
knows, maybe we'll all get lucky.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the University of Michigan
affirmative action cases on April 1.

Sit in classrooms, eat in lunchrooms, romp on playgrounds and wander the
hallways in randomly selected public schools in America: It's right
here, in the nation's increasingly segregated and as

Last fall, a half-dozen child psychologists lurked around New York's
Yale Club at a convention called "Advertising & Promoting to Kids"
in search of new, higher-paying clients.

We all had our youthful indiscretions that haunt or amuse us for the rest of our lives. Mine was conservatism.

In October 1968, at the height of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis, New
York Mayor John Lindsay got heckled off the stage at a synagogue in
Brooklyn.

Progressive journals are key in creating a movement, but they lack support.

The late John Rawls was, by all accounts, a remarkably modest and
generous person, much beloved by his friends and students, and
profoundly uninterested in the kinds of fame and celebrity perks

Blogs

NYU’s Polytechnic School of Engineering or “Poly” facilitates innovation through exploitation of graduate student labor. 

October 21, 2014

NYU Queer Union tackles student debt with their second annual “Come Out of the Debt Closet” event.

October 15, 2014

Does higher education in America offer young women a ticket to the middle class—or entrench class divisions that are only getting wider?

October 15, 2014

Across the country, young people rally, converge and stage sit-ins to end mass criminalization—and more.

October 14, 2014

Outrage over deep budget cutbacks in key states is hurting the GOP.

October 8, 2014

Taken literally, California’s new law mandating an affirmative consent standard on college campuses could redefine a lot of consensual sex as rape. Should we be worried?

September 29, 2014

For young people across the country, generational moments collide.

September 29, 2014

Students in Newark, New Jersey, walked out of class earlier this month in protest of the “One Newark” plan to privatize the district’s schools. A substitute teacher reflects on the action.

September 26, 2014

Activists say the Obama Administration’s “It’s On Us” campaign falls short of what’s needed to end campus sexual assault.

September 24, 2014

Will Koch-allied trustees, state-appointed superintendents or President Obama ever listen to students?

September 15, 2014