Tuesday, September 25, 2007

One Down!

If it's possible to be homesick for a job, I have a raging case of it. While I adore my two boys beyond all reason, I am still terribly missing my career of 14 years before they were born--college admissions. I loved the kids. I loved the parents. I loved the stage. I loved supporting, soothing, challenging, everything. I loved the counselors. I loved figuring out how to find the best kids to meet the needs of the university where I worked. I loved reading all those pages and pages of recommendations and essays. I loved the travel. I did not love the angry phone calls from those who weren't admitted; I especially did not love the devastated ones. But everything else, I loved.

So when I saw Daniel Golden's book, The Price of Admission, I was a moth to a flame. I knew what I would find within, but I had to read it. And I learned I had already read a lot of it, when it was published in a series of columns in the Wall Street Journal, but the compilation is a tour-de-force.

Daniel Golden is a Wall Street Journal reporter who was tipped off to the hidden impact of "legacy" admissions in highly selective colleges--that is, the preferential treatment that is often given to children or grandchildren of alumni of that institution. He wrote a series of columns on what he considers affirmative action for the rich and well-connected. It is fascinating and juicy, and if you know any of the people in the book, it's good for a giggle here and there. (For example, having known the person who is now dean of admissions at Duke since I was a student at another university where he worked, it is easy to imagine him jumping at the chance to go to Steven Speilberg's house to interview his stepdaughter. But hey, wouldn't you? How often do you get a reason to see a movie mogul's house?) He tracks the rise of Brown's prominence after JFK Jr attended. He gives lots of SAT scores of the uber-rich. There is lots of naming of names of both the famous (primarily Hollywood and Washington DC) and the not-famous and not-connected.

As a closet reader of People magazine and devotee of The Cooler blog, I loved some of the lurid gossip. But the phrase that really came to mind reading this book was "beating a dead horse." Over and over and over again, he interviewed kids who didn't get in to the ultra-selective schools they applied to, when less academically qualified classmates got in--and who, for the most part, had to "settle" for places like Johns Hopkins and Carnegie Mellon and NYU. Their subsequent successes were seen as further proof that they were denied the opportunity of a lifetime that they deserved.

As one of those evil participants in this undemocratic process, I agreed wholeheartedly with many of his criticisms. All of the admissions officers I knew hated to see the "development list" come across our desks, but many of our silent groans would turn to cheers when we saw a kid we loved was on it and we knew we had one more point in the favor of a kid whose application we adored. But Golden's fatal flaw is the reason my school created a firewall: it is always much easier to fight for a kid you know. He really got to know a lot of these kids who were unhappy that a well-connected but supposedly less qualified classmate was admitted to a place they thought they wanted to go.

My university and many others stopped interviewing applicants for exactly this reason. It is much easier to get attached to students you've met (or, more perilously, be bored to tears by them)and harder to divorce the personal feelings from what is in the application. And that was the second flaw: the author had absolutely no access to the application files of other similar applicants. And, I had an "inside" scoop very few other readers ever will: I had seen the files of some of these "victimized" kids. And his assumptions for why they were not admitted, at least at the places I worked, were completly false.

In the end, Golden holds up three paragons of admissions virtue: CalTech, Berea, and Cooper Union. All of these are amazing and admirable institutions. But they are also each narrowly focused places without broad appeal. I think he is being naive to suggest that part of the allure of Brown isn't the possibility of taking classes with Leelee Sobieski. And while he talks about how alumni giving probably wouldn't fall as much as most colleges fear if the legacy tip were removed, schools that have generations of students returning from families that know them have a very different feel, and one that is appealing to many students. The changes he calls for are too broad, and too based on the idea that the USNews list is "correct," and that the very smartest kids should be the ones who are going to certain colleges--Harvard, Yale, Princeton, particularly--and not the ones who are actually getting in. Which is ironic, as these are the very schools at which he is wagging fingers for lousy behavior over decades. But if they didn't matter, why would he care?

I'm probably too entrenched in the system to see this objectively. But having worked at four colleges/universities, there are differences beyond the academic offerings; there are distinct campus cultures, which is the joy and the peril of the American college system. In other parts of the world, post-secondary education is like an arranged marriage; you take this test, you score this amount, you go here. You score well on the math section, you go to the technology institute. It's not a bad system; and it certainly can be grafted on to ours (witness the Thai Scholars program, where interested top kids get sent to American schools matching their interests in exchange for a significant portion of their adult lives spent working for Thailand after school). Whether Daniel Golden likes it or not, Notre Dame has decided it is important to them to have a quarter of their class be returning generations of ND families. And Harvard continues to logroll in their own time, doting on their alumni--even Daniel Golden.

All those things said, what I loved about this book (other than a vicarious return to a professional world I adore) was how clearly it refutes any idea that there is a diminished standard for racial minorities. Any discussion of affirmative action programs has to include those for legacies and potential donors, and that did hold true in my experience almost everywhere I worked. Maybe because I have worked on campuses where hundreds of students benefit from one benefactor's child being admitted when they work out in the gym that benefactor built, or study in the library that benefactor donated, or learn from that professor the endowed chair brought, I am really more at ease with the tradeoff. But I've also been lucky to be at places where the percentages of such admits were such a small proportion of the class that it didn't really make a huge difference to the profile of the class.

Bottom line: Overall, a fun read, and a viewpoint I understand, but can't entirely support.

Ok, this was massive. I doubt the others will be this long. (I won't have time to read if I do this for each book!) But this clearly touched a nerve with me. Thanks for letting me prattle on. Next book about to finish: The Secret Life of Bees.

1 comment:

Anjali said...

Sounds intriguing. I should read it now, while my kids are young. I doubt I could stomach it later, when they're ready to apply for colleges.