Magazine article The New Yorker

TOP OF THE CLASS; COMMENT; COMMENT Series: 1/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

TOP OF THE CLASS; COMMENT; COMMENT Series: 1/5

Article excerpt

The competition to get into, or get one's kids into, the nation's most prestigious colleges and universities is unmatched for cutthroat ferocity. But it is echoed, however faintly, in the jousting among Ivy League administrators to be at the forefront of enlightened academic and social policy. A couple of weeks ago, Harvard announced that it was suspending its early-admissions program. A few days later, Princeton scrapped its program entirely. Although most schools aren't likely to follow that lead any time soon, it has sparked another round of welcome debate within academe about the need to reform college admissions.

Derek Bok, Harvard's interim president, offered a succinct rationale for the change. Early-admissions programs, he said, "tend to advantage the advantaged," because "students from more sophisticated backgrounds and affluent high schools often apply early to increase their chances of admission, while minority students and students from rural areas, other countries, and high schools with fewer resources miss out." He's right, of course, and dropping early admissions will eliminate one of the more blatant manifestations of what might be called reverse affirmative action. But it's not as big a step as it may appear, because it leaves in place preferences for what admissions officers refer to as "legacies" and "development cases."

Elite universities will never be perfect meritocracies, and no one expects them to be. But neither do they wish to perpetuate America's class system, which in some ways is becoming more ossified than ever. Yet, according to the Century Foundation, only three per cent of students at the hundred and forty-six most competitive colleges come from families whose levels of education, jobs, and income put them in the bottom socioeconomic quarter. Seventy-four per cent come from the top quarter. More startling, recruitment of minority and low-income students actually fell in recent years. In response, some colleges--including Harvard and Princeton and some of the most influential small liberal-arts colleges--now offer substantial subsidies to freshmen whose parents earn less than a middle-class income, and these schools are also working harder to seek out such candidates.

Nevertheless, the most selective colleges are still overly generous to applicants from the kinds of family least in need of a leg up in life. Legacies, the children of alumni and alumnae, have long had an easier time getting in. On top of that are the development cases--the term of art for the often less than academically stellar children of celebrities, wealthy executives, and influential politicians. As Daniel Golden, a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, explains in his new book "The Price of Admission," Ivy League college presidents, admissions deans, and trustees spend a great deal of time and effort soliciting these lucky students, many of whom are admitted with S.A.T. scores three or four hundred points below those of some rejected applicants.

A related problem is the scramble for the best students--and, indirectly, the best slots in U.S. News & World Report's annual rankings. This "arms race" has led colleges and policymakers to award increasing proportions of aid based on "merit" rather than on financial need. Thus a status-hungry school will lure a gifted student from a higher-ranked competitor by offering the kid full room, board, and tuition, even if his or her parents can afford the fees. As a result, children from middle-class families are actually more likely to receive grants and tuition discounts from private institutions--and more money--than those from low-income families. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.