The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Colleges and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates, By Daniel Golden, Crown, 323 pp., $25.95
Reading "The Price of Admission" is sometimes like watching the scene in "Casablanca" where Captain Renault (played by Claude Rains ) shuts down Rick's cafe. Renault theatrically bellows, "I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here!" Then one of Rick's employees hands Renault his gambling winnings.
Daniel Golden is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at The Wall Street Journal and a former Boston Globe reporter . His book arose from a series of investigative articles written for the Journal about how the wealthy, the famous, and the well- connected receive preferential treatment in getting their kids into elite colleges. Golden's goal, which he achieves with an overwhelming amount of solid evidence gleaned from two years of tireless research, is to spotlight "a reality elite universities pretend doesn't exist -- that money and connections are increasingly tainting college admissions, undermining both its credibility and value to American democracy."
Golden devotes chapters to several preferences that "amount to nothing less than affirmative action for rich white people." These preferences include "development cases," wherein the children of wealthy parents get admitted despite subpar test scores in order to boost college endowments. Golden, among numerous examples, cites a New Jersey real estate mogul who pledged $2.5 million to Harvard "only months before his elder son -- a student below Harvard's usual standards -- was admitted." Golden convincingly argues that the wall of separation between the development and admission functions at elite universities is often nonexistent; admitting less- qualified offspring of millionaires becomes an effective, if unpublicized, fund - raising tool.
Other preferences assailed by Golden include those given to the children of celebrities. He focuses on Brown University, which has attracted glittering names (with mediocre or sub-par SAT scores) such as Christopher Ovitz (son of Hollywood power broker Michael Ovitz ) and Jessica Capshaw (Steven Spielberg's stepdaughter ). Golden also points to fashion model Lauren Bush, President George W. Bush's niece, who was admitted to Princeton despite submitting her application a month beyond the deadline, and despite SAT scores "considerably below" that of the typical Princeton student.
Golden additionally attacks "legacy preferences," which give a decided admissions edge to the children of alumni. He cites the University of Notre Dame, where nearly a quarter of every freshman class is made up of legacies . Golden shows how legacy preferences can undermine academic quality and egalitarianism (legacies are disproportionately white and rich ). But once again, the trade - off inherent in legacy preferences boosts the bottom line for the development office, notes Golden, which can then solicit donations from a family-like network of alumni.
Many elite universities also use "upper-crust sports" such as polo, skiing, and sailing to give admissions preference to athletes from wealthy families that can finance participation in them. Golden compares two Massachusetts high schools. While both East Boston High School and Phillips Academy Andover (an elite prep school), field basketball and football teams, Phillips additionally offers water polo, cycling, and squash. Students playing these "patrician sports" get preference in admission to elite colleges that also field such teams.
Who suffers in all this? Golden calls them "the unhooked," middle- and lower-income students who might have outstanding academic records or tremendous potential but who get squeezed out because their families aren't rich, famous, or politically connected. At elite colleges, admissions is "a zero-sum game," says Golden, and self-congratulatory rhetoric about level playing fields and socioeconomic diversity runs up against the reality that "a large proportion of slots at these universities are reserved for the rich." So in higher education, as in politics, access to healthcare and so much else in America, money talks. And, as the gap widens between the haves and the have-nots, money shouts. If you're "shocked" by this, you haven't been paying close attention.