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Scandals of Higher Education


On the Tuesday before last Thanksgiving, The Harvard Crimson ran a protest article by a sophomore majoring in economics. His cause was the abolition of classes for the whole of Thanksgiving week. Since few students like to stick around past the weekend before the holiday, he wrote, Harvard ought to follow Yale in ending its “anti-family-friendly policy” of remaining officially in session through Wednesday. It did not occur to him that making a round-trip home shortly before leaving campus again for Christmas break might pose a financial hardship for some of his classmates.1

The facts bear him out. Ninety percent of Harvard students come from families earning more than the median national income of $55,000, and Harvard’s dean of admissions was quoted in the Crimson a few months earlier defining “middle-income” Harvard families as those earning between $110,000 and $200,000. For these students, and certainly for their many wealthier classmates, it should be no problem to fly home, or, better yet, to hop over to Cancun or Barbados.

It is hardly surprising that lots of rich kids go to America’s richest colleges. It has always been so. But today’s students are richer on average than their predecessors. Between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s, in a sample of eleven prestigious colleges, the percentage of students from families in the bottom quartile of national family income remained roughly steady—around 10 percent. During the same period the percentage of students from the top quartile rose sharply, from a little more than one third to fully half. If the upscale shops and restaurants near campus are any indication, the trend has continued if not accelerated. And if the sample is broadened to include the top 150 colleges, the percentage of students from the bottom quartile drops to 3 percent.2 In short, there are very few poor students at America’s top colleges, and a large and growing number of rich ones.

All this may seem at odds with the stated commitment of Ivy League and other elite colleges to the high-sounding principle of “need-blind” admissions. To be “need-blind” means to take no account of a candidate’s ability to pay in deciding the case for admission. And since this policy is usually accompanied by a pledge to provide sufficient scholarship funds to admitted applicants who cannot afford the full cost (around $45,000 in the Ivy League today), it is an expensive policy. It depends on a system of discount pricing by which students paying the published tuition and fees subsidize those who cannot pay, and it requires large institutional investments to sustain the scholarship fund.

These are worthy commitments—a residual form of redistributive liberalism in a society broadly hostile to liberalism. Yet as a matter of practice, “need-blind” is a slogan that does not mean much except in relation to the needs of the applicant pool. If most applicants come from places like Greenwich or Grosse Point, a college can be “need-blind” without having to dispense much aid.

What explains the scarcity of low-income students at America’s selective colleges? The short answer is that very few apply. As William Bowen, Martin Kurzweil, and Eugene Tobin write in their book Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education, students from low-income families tend early in life to fall behind in “cognitive skills, motivation, expectations…and practical knowledge about the college admissions process.”3 Most lose hope of attending a top college long before the competition formally begins.

The causes and consequences of these dispiriting facts are complex, and the cost to society—moral and material—is high. There is moral cost in the shortfall between the professed ideal of equal opportunity and the reality of rising inequality. As for the material cost, “there has never been reason to believe that all outstanding candidates will be able to pay whatever fees are charged without help,” as Bowen and his colleagues put it, and “society at large needs all the trained talent it can marshal.”

Our richest colleges could and should do a better job of recruiting needy students, which would require spending more money on the effort to find and support them. They could cut back on lounges in the library and luxuries in the dorms—features of college life designed to please coddled students and attract more of the same. They could demand more from faculty and reward coaches and administrators less lavishly. And just as they scout for athletes across the nation and the world, they could hire more admissions professionals and assign them to inner-city and rural schools.

In the meantime, private philanthropies such as the New York Times Scholarship Program have intervened by identifying public school students “who have overcome exceptional hardship to achieve excellence,” providing them with partial scholarships, mentoring, summer employment, and help with the admissions process. A few well-endowed or well-intentioned colleges and universities—among them, Amherst, Harvard, the University of North Carolina and the University of Virginia, and, most recently, Princeton—have also made a start toward restoring some equity to the process.4 The young president of Amherst College, Anthony Marx, is leading the effort to recruit aggressively from schools in poor neighborhoods, and Amherst is also seeking outstanding transfer students from local community colleges.5 Other colleges have terminated their early admission programs, which work in favor of applicants from private and affluent suburban schools, while still others have replaced loans with grants for students from the lowest income bracket.6 Bowen, former president of Princeton and of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, wants selective colleges to “put a thumb on the scale” to give explicit advantage to candidates from economically deprived backgrounds—candidates, that is, who have already overcome long odds to “get into the credible applicant pool.”7 He is calling, in effect, for an affirmative action program for the poor.


While these proposals are being debated by presidents and trustees—at least one hopes they are debating them—an odor of hypocrisy has gathered in the gap between academic rhetoric and academic reality. The American university tends to be described these days by foe and friend alike as the Alamo of the left—a last fortress for liberal holdouts in a society that has pretty much routed liberals from politics and public life. But how persuasive are testimonials of devotion to equity and democracy when they come from institutions that are usually beyond the reach of anyone without lots of money?

This question is taken up in a number of recent books about universities written in a spirit of sharp chastisement. Among them, Daniel Golden’s The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates is the angriest.8 It exemplifies Bowen’s point that

the sense of democratic legitimacy is undermined if people believe that the rich are admitted to selective colleges and universities regardless of merit while able and deserving candidates from more modest backgrounds are turned away.

That is exactly what Golden, who writes about education for The Wall Street Journal, believes. To him, the odor of hypocrisy has become a stench. He thinks that elite universities make “room for the unexceptional rich” by turning “away brighter, upwardly mobile applicants” in a process that amounts to “affirmative action for rich white people.”

To make his case, he has assembled an anthology of sordid stories intended to show how the rich rig the system to get what they want. It all reminds me of a story I have on good authority about a meeting at a New York City private school of high school seniors with their college counselor. The counselor, trying to help them prepare for their college interviews, asked what they would say about what special contribution they would bring to the college of their choice. “I’m very outgoing,” said one. “I’m passionate about community service,” said another. The discussion took an unexpected twist when one young man said, simply, “a library.” “What do you mean, a library?” asked the counselor, a little taken aback. “Well, my dad said he’d give a library to whatever school I want to go to.” Golden’s book amounts to the charge that colleges are lining up to take Dad up on his offer.

He names names. Duke University comes off especially badly, followed by Brown, Harvard, and other Ivies. He also names a few recipients of these schools’ favor—celebrities, politicians, investment bankers, venture capitalists who have been generous to their alma mater; all of them, according to Golden, get the quid pro quo of preferential treatment for their children or even the children of friends. Some cases are egregious, as when a command is handed down from the development office to the admissions office to accept a patently weak candidate.

But such commands are often refused, and though it is true that they are occasionally obeyed, it is also true that private colleges have a legitimate interest in securing a donor base of loyal alumni, which is essential to their fund-raising for, among other things, financial aid to help needy students. In view of the vast numbers of applications now flooding into the top schools (over 20,000 is no longer exceptional), it is more difficult than ever for the child of an alumnus or otherwise privileged family to get in.

At Yale, for instance, as late as the 1960s, more than two thirds of alumni sons who applied were accepted. Since then, that figure has dropped by over half, and all such institutions are now engaged in ferocious competition for bright and driven students.9 Golden takes note of this trend, but only implicitly, by enumerating the high test scores and high school class ranks of most students today at places like Yale. In light of that information his cases of putative influence-peddling look strikingly anomalous. Rather than proving that “elites [are] mastering the art of perpetuating themselves,” he has shown, in fact, how much harder it has become for families with old school ties, even the very rich, to get their children into colleges where they once would have walked in.

The Price of Admission is a muckraking morality tale with many villains and few heroes. One of the few is the California Institute of Technology, which “comes closer,” Golden says, “than any other major American university to admitting its student body purely on academic merit.”10 Caltech is a great institution and its admissions standards are impressively pure. But its strong focus on training young scientists can hardly serve as a model for institutions with a broader mission.

As Golden himself points out, Caltech enrolled exactly one African-American student in its Class of 2008, and only 30 percent of its students are women. Its admissions officers, by their own account, find it painfully necessary to reject candidates who have passion and talent but who, having attended inferior high schools, lack the advanced placement courses and test scores proving strong science preparation. One purpose of a more flexible admissions policy is to give such students with “holes in the transcript” a chance—and while Caltech may not be the right place for them, it does not follow that they should be excluded from all highly selective institutions.

  1. 1

    Adam A. Solomon, “Give Us a Break: Harvard Students Should Not Have Class During Thanksgiving Week,” The Harvard Crimson, November 21, 2006.

  2. 2

    The figures are from William G. Bowen, Martin A. Kurzweil, and Eugene M. Tobin, Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education. The eleven institutions are Barnard, Columbia, Oberlin, Penn State, Princeton, Smith, Swarthmore, the University of Pennsylvania, Wellesley, Williams, and Yale. When the sample is broadened to include the “top 146 colleges,” as reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Karin Fischer, “Elite Colleges Lag in Serving the Needy,” May 12, 2006), the figure falls to 3 percent. Bowen also reports that only 3 percent of students at nineteen selective colleges and leading state universities are the first to attend college from a low-income family (p. 163).

  3. 3

    For a devastating account of how poor children fall behind early in life, see Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3,” American Educator, Spring 2003.

  4. 4

    In January 2007, Princeton announced a one-year freeze on the price of tuition—a decision likely to prove more symbolic than substantive, since it was accompanied by a nearly 20 percent increase in the cost of lodging and board. And while this decision will make Princeton slightly more affordable for its (predominantly affluent) students, it may have a regressive effect at less wealthy institutions that feel compelled to match it. Tuition revenue is a main source of subsidy for students on financial aid, and freezing tuition therefore puts more demand on endowment, which is often restricted for use for other purposes. (See Scott Jaschik, “Princeton Freezes Tuition,” InsideHigherEd.com, January 22, 2007, and David W. Breneman, “What Princeton Tuition Freeze Means—and Doesn’t Mean,” InsideHigherEd.com, January 29, 2007.)

  5. 5

    See “Campus Revolutionary,” Business Week, February 27, 2006. Mr. Marx’s admirable initiative carries daunting costs (he estimates that about $1 million of endowment is required to support each student on full scholarship) and, ironically enough, risks hurting the college’s reputation. By recruiting needy students—who are likely to have lower SAT scores—Amherst may see its ranking drop in such widely read publications as U.S. News and World Report.

  6. 6

    Early admissions programs favor students from private or affluent suburban schools with skilled college counselors who lobby for their candidates at top colleges; and since applying early usually requires a commitment to attend if admitted, applicants cannot compare financial aid offers from multiple colleges—an essential process for needy students. Colleges have tended to deny that early admissions favors the wealthy, but when Harvard’s interim president Derek Bok announced that Harvard would terminate its early admissions program, he conceded that “the existing process has been shown to advantage those who are already advantaged.” See Alan Finder and Karen W. Arenson, “Harvard Ends Early Admission, Citing Barrier to Disadvantaged,” The New York Times, September 12, 2006.

  7. 7

    Based on numerical estimates of the advantages currently enjoyed (in descending order) by recruited athletes, racial minorities, early admission candidates, and “legacies” (children of alumni), Bowen proposes to give low-income applicants a boost roughly comparable to that of legacies.

  8. 8

    I should say that Golden was a student of mine at Harvard nearly thirty years ago, and one whom I respected and admired.

  9. 9

    This rate of acceptance still represents nearly triple the rate for nonlegacy candidates. Since children of Yale alumni tend to be well prepared academically, comparison with the whole applicant pool may be misleading.

  10. 10

    Golden also admires Cooper Union in New York City, a distinguished art school that charges no tuition, and Berea College in the Appalachian region of Kentucky, a liberal arts college founded by an abolitionist minister that also charges no tuition and restricts admissions to students who are the first in their families to attend college. Berea defrays some of the cost by requiring students to work in campus maintenance and management operations. Both of these schools are excellent institutions but their admissions practices and distinctive missions would be difficult if not impossible for other institutions to emulate.

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