The secret of getting into the “best” colleges? Have rich, celebrity, or very well connected parents (being a federal official controlling education funds doesn’t hurt, either).
The Ivy League’s embrace of the sons of Bill Frist and Al Gore underscores 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.
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Imagine if the New York Philharmonic adopted the same selection criteria as Harvard, Yale, or Stanford. It would turn down a top violinist with a sublime sound in favor of a second-rate one with a screeching bow because his father had played in the orchestra himself, had endowed a rehearsal space (or was expected to do so once his son was chosen), was a famous actor, or controlled federal appropriations for the arts.
Mr Golden shows that elite universities do everything in their power to admit the children of privilege. If they cannot get them in through the front door by relaxing their standards, then they smuggle them in through the back. No less than 60% of the places in elite universities are given to candidates who have some sort of extra “hook”, from rich or alumni parents to “sporting prowess”. The number of whites who benefit from this affirmative action is far greater than the number of blacks.
The American establishment is extraordinarily good at getting its children into the best colleges. In the last presidential election both candidates—George Bush and John Kerry—were “C” students who would have had little chance of getting into Yale if they had not come from Yale families. Al Gore and Bill Frist both got their sons into their alma maters (Harvard and Princeton respectively), despite their average academic performances. Universities bend over backwards to admit “legacies” (ie, the children of alumni). Harvard admits 40% of legacy applicants compared with 11% of applicants overall. Amherst admits 50%. An average of 21-24% of students in each year at Notre Dame are the offspring of alumni. When it comes to the children of particularly rich donors, the bending-over-backwards reaches astonishing levels. Harvard even has something called a “Z” list—a list of applicants who are given a place after a year’s deferment to catch up—that is dominated by the children of rich alumni.
University behaviour is at its worst when it comes to grovelling to celebrities. Duke University’s admissions director visited Steven Spielberg’s house to interview his stepdaughter. Princeton found a place for Lauren Bush—the president’s niece and a top fashion model—despite the fact that she missed the application deadline by a month. Brown University was so keen to admit Michael Ovitz’s son that it gave him a place as a “special student”. (He dropped out after a year.)
A number of factors have helped to fuel the soaring cost of public colleges. Administrative costs have soared nationwide, and many administrators have secured big pay increases—including some at CU, in 2011. Teaching loads have declined for tenured faculty at many schools, adding to costs. Between 2001 and 2011, the Department of Education says, the number of managers at U.S. colleges and universities grew 50% faster than the number of instructors. What’s more, schools have spent liberally on fancier dorms, dining halls and gyms to compete for students.
“Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer — the place where upward mobility gets started,” said Greg J. Duncan, an economist at the University of California, Irvine. “But on virtually every measure we have, the gaps between high- and low-income kids are widening. It’s very disheartening.”
The growing role of class in academic success has taken experts by surprise since it follows decades of equal opportunity efforts and counters racial trends, where differences have narrowed. It adds to fears over recent evidence suggesting that low-income Americans have lower chances of upward mobility than counterparts in Canada and Western Europe.
Thirty years ago, there was a 31 percentage point difference between the share of prosperous and poor Americans who earned bachelor’s degrees, according to Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski of the University of Michigan. Now the gap is 45 points.
While both groups improved their odds of finishing college, the affluent improved much more, widening their sizable lead.
Likely reasons include soaring incomes at the top and changes in family structure, which have left fewer low-income students with the support of two-parent homes. Neighborhoods have grown more segregated by class, leaving lower-income students increasingly concentrated in lower-quality schools. And even after accounting for financial aid, the costs of attending a public university have risen 60 percent in the past two decades. Many low-income students, feeling the need to help out at home, are deterred by the thought of years of lost wages and piles of debt.
Mockery, truculence, and minimalist living are best, then enjoy the decline. We also need a Revolving Door Tax (RDT) and to prosecute politicians and staff and their “family and friends” who profit from insider trading.