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.