Magazine article The Washington Monthly

Apps Lit: What the New Wave of College-Admissions Fiction Tells Us about Higher Education

Magazine article The Washington Monthly

Apps Lit: What the New Wave of College-Admissions Fiction Tells Us about Higher Education

Article excerpt

Not long after graduating from Princeton with a literature degree and $81,000 in student loans, Noah, the son of a struggling single mother from rural Virginia, took a job as an SAT tutor on Manhattan's Upper East Side. For $395 an hour, he schooled the children of the improbably rich in techniques guaranteed to lift their standardized test scores by as much as 350 points.

Noah's most difficult charge was Dylan Thayer. Dylan's mother, an immaculately coiffed psychiatrist with a weakness for writing herself Ritalin prescriptions, hoped to boost Dylan's SAT writing score from a disappointing 420 to the 650 required by the lacrosse recruiter at UPenn. Alas, Dylan spent too much time at hip Manhattan clubs and recovering from the ensuing hangovers to concentrate on studying. One week before the test, Dr. Thayer realized that the phalanx of tutors she had procured couldn't compensate for her son's chronic indolence. She handed Noah a check for $80,000 and implored him to sit the test on Dylan's behalf.

Such is the plot of Eliot Schrefer's Glamorous Disasters, a morality tale about the many ways in which money buys access to a good college. It's satirical, but only just. Forty years after Congress passed the Higher Education Act, America's best colleges are hardly the machinery by which a meritocracy functions. They're more like finishing schools for the rich. Pell Grants haven't kept pace with tuition hikes; top schools increasingly bid for star applicants with scholarships based on "merit," not need. At the same time, services offering the wealthy an edge--private SAT tutoring, essay editing, application "packaging"--have graduated into a multimillion-dollar industry. Like defense-department officials who quit to work for Lockheed Martin, former admissions officers help students craft essays and fortify their resumes with unusual extracurriculars for as much as $30,000. Consequently, wealthier students are displacing both low-income and middle-class students at the most selective colleges--where 74 percent of the students now come from the top socioeconomic quartile.

This situation has evidently horrified the writerly imagination, because Schrefer's book is one of four novels published this year about the seamier side of college admissions. In Jane Austen in Scarsdale: Or Love, Death, and the SATs, a romantically frustrated guidance counselor in Westchester County negotiates checkbook-wielding parents and an unscrupulous educational consultant named Curtis Fink. Academy X follows a hapless Manhattan private school instructor ensnared by a wealthy student in a plot to get her into Princeton. But the most infamous example is Kaavya Viswanathan's fable of a Harvard-obsessed overachiever who fabricates the persona of a party girl, Haw Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life (which in March was discovered to have been substantially plagiarized). …

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