Harvard University Press, 261 pp., $22.50 (paper)
Every middle-class American family with a college-age child knows how it goes: the meetings at which the high school counselor draws up a list of “reaches” and “safeties,” the bills for SAT prep courses (“But, Dad, everyone takes one; if you don’t let me, I’m screwed”), the drafts of the personal essay in which your child tries to strike just the right note between humility and self-promotion—and finally, on the day of decision, the search through the mail in dread of the thin envelope that would mean it’s all over and that, as a family, you have collectively failed.
The struggle to get into America’s leading colleges is, of course, the dark side of a bright historical development. Until about fifty years ago, our most prestigious academic institutions were pretty much the domain of well-born prep school boys. In 1912, Owen Johnson’s enduringly popular novel (most recently reprinted in 2003) Stover at Yale gave a picture of Ivy life as a gladiatorial contest among alpha males who, by beating out their rivals for a spot on the team or in the club, learned to achieve “victory…on the broken hopes of a comrade,” and went on to rule the nation. In 1920, Scott Fitzgerald (Princeton ’17) called Stover at Yale the “textbook” for his generation. Writing a few years later about Harvard in his novel Not to Eat, Not for Love, George Weller remarked on “how similar the faces always looked in the Varsity picture, except where there was an Irishman or a Jew, and even then they seemed somehow anglicized down toward alikeness.” In Weller’s novel, one Harvard bureaucrat runs a brisk business selling “the addresses of selected Anglo-saxon sophomores to the mothers of Boston débutantes” lest some “anglicized” Irishman or Jew pass for a WASP and, by means of an unwary Beacon Hill belle, contaminate the race. As late as the outbreak of World War II, these fictions had the plausibility of fact.
At the turn of the century, when Stover was prepping for Yale, fewer than a quarter-million Americans, or about 2 percent of the population between eighteen and twenty-four, attended college. By the end of World War II, that figure had risen to over two million. In 1975, it stood at nearly ten million, or one third of the young adult population. Today, the United States leads the world by a considerable margin in the percentage of citizens (27 percent or 79 million) who are college graduates.1
To advance this immense social transformation required many means—notably the GI Bill, passed by Congress in 1944, which brought onto America’s campuses students whose fathers could have set foot there only as members of the janitorial class. Starting a decade later, the Ivies did their part by establishing “need-blind admissions” and “need-based financial aid”—by which they promised to accept qualified applicants regardless of their ability to pay, and to help support needy matriculants by assessing family assets and making up with scholarship aid whatever the family could not…
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