COLUMN: Elite schools make room for mediocre rich kids

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 2B

If you or your child is applying to a selective college this year, here’s a reading assignment: Pick up a copy of The Price of Admission, a new book by Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Golden.

It’ll either give you a useful view into how the elite admissions game works or just leave you disgusted about the whole enterprise.

Actually, probably both.

Mr. Golden’s subject is the root unfairness in the way elite colleges choose who wins the coveted spots in their freshman classes.

Some folks complain about admissions policies that favor minority students. But Mr. Golden shows the degree to which the bias actually moves in the opposite direction: toward children of privilege.

We all know wealthy kids have enormous advantages not available to others. Their parents can afford score-boosting SAT prep classes and private school tuition. They can give their children an upbringing that provides endless educational opportunities. Those can all give the rich an edge.

But I’m not talking about those kids – the ones who, even considering their privileges, earn their spots. I’m talking about kids who aren’t remarkably bright but still get into top colleges because of who their daddy is.

The most obvious way that’s done is by legacy preference, the edge that colleges give to the children of their alumni. It’s probably the most effective way colleges encourage – some might say extort – donations from their former students.

For instance, at Harvard the admissions rate for legacies is four times the rate for the hoi polloi. Is it because those kids are unusually smart? Nope – they actually have lower average SAT scores than other admitted students.

Mr. Golden, himself a Harvard alum, details the ways colleges chase after the children of the rich and powerful, like paparazzi pursuing Paris Hilton.

He shows how Al Gore’s son earned a questionable admission to Harvard, and how presidential niece Lauren Bush got into Princeton despite below-average SAT scores, mediocre grades at her Houston prep school and not bothering to apply until a month after the deadline.

I’d like to see a working-class kid from South Dallas try that trick.

Actually, North Texas, home to more than its fair share of rich folks, shows up a few times in Mr. Golden’s narrative. Members of Fort Worth’s Bass family have given tens of millions to their alma maters, and that’s helped when it comes time for their children to apply. Mr. Golden reports that one Bass daughter got into Stanford despite being in the middle of her own high school class and having an SAT score that ranked her deep in the bottom quartile of Stanford freshmen.

Mr. Golden writes about how, beginning in the 1970s, Duke – which comes out of this book looking awful – targeted the wealthy parents of Dallas prep schools because the university was looking for rich families to turn into donors, no matter how mediocre their kids’ academic records were.

“We really worked Dallas,” a former Duke associate director of admissions told Mr. Golden. It was all part of Duke’s hunt for members of the “socioeconomically high-end.”

And for the rich legacies who still can’t sneak into a school, there’s often a back door. Harvard, for instance, maintains something called the “Z-list” for students who can’t survive the normal admissions process. They’re told they can enroll if they just wait a year. Not so coincidentally, about three-quarters of the students on the Z-list are legacies.

If this seems like a personal issue to me, it’s probably because it is.

I went to Yale. Some might call that casting against type. I grew up in a poor small town in south Louisiana. No one in my family had ever been to college, and most hadn’t graduated from high school. It took $100,000 in grants, $16,000 in student loans, and a couple campus jobs to make Yale affordable.

I knew some of the people Mr. Golden is talking about. The prep-school kids with B-minus minds. The ones whose last names were on campus buildings.

They were a small minority of the student body, most of which was awe-inspiring. But there were some I couldn’t stop comparing to the brilliant kids who I knew had gotten rejection letters.

I enjoyed my time at Yale, and I wouldn’t mind if my kid went there someday. But Yale, with its endowment of $15 billion, doesn’t need my money. It’s depressing how many of my classmates preach the need to donate cash – not out of affection for their alma mater, but solely so they can be labeled a “productive alum” and someday get their own kids into Yale.

Is any of this really surprising? I mean, isn’t it a given that connections matter, that a kid whose last name is Bush, Bass or Kennedy is going to have an edge?

I suppose. But America’s elite colleges make such a fuss about their high-minded meritocracy that it’s disgusting to see them dance like eager courtiers.

The American model is supposed to promote social mobility, not an inherited aristocracy. College admissions is a zero-sum game. For every C-student rich kid who gets into Harvard, there’s a far more qualified middle-class kid who gets stuck with his safety school.

And those spots in the freshman class are more sought after than ever. When I applied to Yale in 1993, the university admitted 19 percent of all applicants. Today, it’s closer to 9 percent.

Elite schools, including Yale and Harvard, have made efforts in the last few years to increase the number of low-income students they attract – mostly by offering more generous financial aid packages.

But as long as they keep holding the door open for the middling children of aristocrats, they’ll be blocking the path for everyone else.