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.

Moreover, if applicants to top colleges were admitted on the basis of grades and tests alone, this would simply ensure that they come overwhelmingly from prosperous families—precisely what Golden is against—since the close correlation of test scores and family income is well documented.11 Golden is right that our current college admissions system has serious problems, but fixing it by making tests and grades count for even more than they already do is not the right fix.


Walter Benn Michaels, an English professor at the University of Illinois, is also angry, but he has a different view of where the problem begins. He directs his anger not so much at the admissions or development office as at the entire culture of academia, which, in his view, has settled somewhere between insouciance and hypocrisy with regard to the widening class divide. “Poor people,” he writes in The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality,

are an endangered species in elite universities not because the universities put quotas on them…and not even because they can’t afford to go to them (Harvard will lend you or even give you the money you need to go there) but because they can’t get into them.

This is basically true, as Bowen and his colleagues demonstrate. What Michaels adds to the discussion is the idea that many academic liberals have been deceiving themselves about this uncomfortable truth while—unwittingly, perhaps—abetting it.

What he means is that the academic left (which he tartly calls the “supposed left”) expends its energy rallying against such phantom enemies as racism and sexism—erstwhile evils that he believes barely exist today, at least not in the narrow social stratum from which college students come. As a result, “progressive politics” too often “consists of disapproving of bad things that happened a long time ago.” But Michaels does not stop at chiding the “supposed left” for indulging in nostalgia for battles already won. He thinks that by obscuring the real issue—the class divide—that persists behind all the smoke and noise over “diversity,” the academic left has become complicit with the broader political right in rewarding the rich and penalizing the poor.

Michaels is fed up with the mantra of diversity, and it is hard to blame him. In the past, one obstacle that kept minority students out of college was patent racism—the asserted association between external physical characteristics (skin color, facial features, body type) and inherent mental capacities or tendencies.12 Today, however, this kind of pseudoscience has been discredited, and the word “race” tends to be employed as a synonym for culture—an equivalence based on the dubious, or at least imperfect, premise that a person’s ancestry tells us something important about how that person experiences the world. The problem with “this way of thinking about culture instead of race,” Michaels says, “is that it just takes the old practice of racial stereotyping and renovates it in the form of cultural stereotyping.”13 People of African ancestry are expected to prefer blues to Brahms. People of Asian ancestry are lumped together in the category “Asian-American” even though they might identify themselves primarily as Laotians or Christians. In any event, they are supposed to prefer engineering to poetry.

Michaels argues that nothing much has changed by substituting the idea of particular cultures for the discredited idea of race. For pragmatic as well as analytical reasons, he wants the left to forget about this kind of diversity, whether we call it racial or cultural (“diversity, like gout, is a rich people’s problem”), and focus instead on poverty. A satirical verse (quoted in another recent book by another English professor, Michael Berubé of Pennsylvania State University) nicely captures Michaels’s point. It might be called the Song of the Abject Affluent, and a lot of people at elite colleges are singing it:

I’m sorry for what my people did to your people

It was a nasty job

Please note the change of attitude

On the bumper of my Saab.14

Quite apart from the question of who “my people” and “your people” are at a time when more and more Americans claim multiple racial descent, this mixture of guilt and pride is mostly for show, just like the car.

Along with racism, the other excoriated enemy of the academic left is sexism, as in the controversy provoked by former Harvard president Lawrence Summers, who posed the question of whether men and women may have different innate intellectual capacities. Michaels regards sexism, too, as a convenient phantom at a time when half the students in the Ivy League, four presidents (soon to include Summers’s successor, the distinguished historian Drew Gilpin Faust), and an increasing percentage of faculty are women. In the transformed world of what was once an old boys club, “feminism,” he writes, “is what you appeal to when you want to make it sound as if the women of Wall Street and the women of Wal-Mart are both victims of sexism.” In fact, few of the former are victims of sexism and many of the latter are victims, first and foremost, of poverty. In short, Michaels thinks the academic left willfully misses the point—that the big obstacle to equal opportunity is not race or gender, but class.

Michaels is right to insist that in the triumvirate of social evils so often invoked in academic life—race, class, and gender—the middle term has all but dropped out of the discussion. But in trying to bring it back, he is too quick to dismiss the other two. He writes, for example, that “it’s their lack of family wealth, not color of their skin, that disproportionately keeps blacks out of elite colleges.” This is too pat. It fails to acknowledge the lingering and subtly pernicious effects of race not so much on institutional policy as on individual experience. Difficult as it is for students from poor families to reach and succeed in the privileged culture of elite colleges, it is all the more so for those who must cross a racial as well as a class divide. Yet he insists that “affirmative action…solves a problem that no longer exists.” Bowen differs, wanting class-based admissions preferences to be a supplement, not a substitute, for race-based preferences.15

As for the mistreatment and disadvantages faced by women, Michaels argues that such problems as domestic abuse are overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, problems for poor women. Here too he overstates the case. He does not acknowledge the vestiges of male domination in university life, especially in certain scientific fields that have been slow to recruit and promote qualified women. Nor does he take into account how the demands of child care, for instance, can hold back even affluent women from professional advancement.16

Still, his main point is a fair one: campus liberals far prefer the soft issues of racial and gender diversity to such hard issues as the effect on American working families of cheap foreign labor or the gross inequities of a public school system funded by local property taxes, or, closer to home, the failure of their own institutions to recruit and support more talented students with no money. I have met very few faculty members who, even as they agitate for far-flung social causes, care to look closely at the admissions policies of their own institutions.17

Michaels has written a bracing polemic that should quicken the debate over what diversity really means, or should mean, in academia and beyond. He can be strident and even snide. But at his best, he recalls Irving Howe’s exasperation with the “puerile” New Left as a movement of privileged children marching under the banner of revolution while the traditional constituency of the Old Left—people trying to make a decent life against the odds—watched the parade go by.


Whatever their differences of tone and authority, Bowen, Golden, and Michaels agree that our colleges and universities are following rather than resisting the national trend toward a widening disparity between rich and poor. This is true not only in how colleges admit their students, but in their internal structure (presidential compensation has crossed the million-dollar threshold in several cases), and in the wealth of leading institutions relative to their competitors (the annual return on Harvard’s $30 billion endowment now exceeds the entire endowment of some of its Ivy League rivals).

The ideal—perhaps a better word is imaginary—university about which Harvard’s great nineteenth-century president Charles W. Eliot remarked that “luxury and learning are ill bed fellows” is dying if not extinct. It has given way to a sprawling and diffuse new entity no longer adequately described by the term coined by University of California president Clark Kerr nearly fifty years ago, when he characterized his “multiversity” as “a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.”18 The multiversity has now become what the entrepreneurial president of Arizona State University, Michael Crow, calls a Comprehensive Knowledge Enterprise, or CKE—a network of corporations, governments, and universities in which the local campus is less and less central to the research, consulting, and international marketing that bring in money and prestige. To many faculty members, parking near the campus now matters less than airport access.

Meanwhile, new universities are emerging throughout the world, especially in China, and American institutions are expanding fiscally and physically in order to meet the challenge—from Harvard (which has acquired 250 acres across the Charles River in Allston) and Columbia (which is buying up a sparsely populated district in northern Manhattan) and the major state universities (a vast new “Centennial Campus” is under construction at North Carolina State University) to relatively small institutions like the University of Rochester and the University of California at Santa Cruz, once an outpost of post-Sixties counterculture.

Even in the richest institutions, the time-proven structures of liberal education—small-class discussion, personal mentors—are being distended if not destroyed, and the incentives of money and renown are pushing faculty toward research and away from teaching. In the shadow of all this growth and proliferation, books about college admissions properly put their emphasis on the question of where and how these institutions get their students; but it is also important to ask what happens to the students once they get in, no matter where they come from.

One thing that happens, especially at the most prestigious colleges, is that students acquire a strong sense of self-satisfaction. (Michaels speculates that one side effect of affirmative action is to reinforce the conviction of predominantly affluent white students “that they didn’t get in just because they were white.”) Former president Neil Rudenstine used to greet Harvard freshmen by telling them that, as nervous and unworthy as they might feel during their first days at college, Harvard would send them into the world proud and confident and ready for anyone and anything. Yet even successful applicants can be driven into anxiety and depression by the entire process of applying, which turns the high school years into a frantic scramble for distinction. And, in a terrible paradox, as our top colleges turn away more and more gifted students—a demographic fact that necessarily leaves many talented students outside the Ivy gates—the frenzy of competition makes the prize of admission worth more and more, leaving rejected applicants feeling wounded and unfit.

It will be difficult to adjust this system toward greater sanity and equity. As a start, it would help to recognize that the history of college admissions is a stark illustration of the law of unintended consequences. Today’s system of personal essays, interviews, and recommendations, meant to ensure a diversity of temperaments and interests as well as racial and ethnic origins among admitted students, was invented early in the twentieth century for precisely the opposite reason: to detect and limit applicants with undesirable traits, notably Jewishness.19 When the system of standardized testing was imposed a half-century ago it was originally intended to break the lock that children of privilege had on the elite colleges and to identify the best minds throughout the nation at a time when, to meet the Soviet threat, top American universities were transforming themselves from finishing schools for the rich into training schools for the bright.20 Today, that system of standardized testing has become a tool of the wealthy, who have many means—expensive schools, private SAT tutors—to inflate the test scores of their children.

How much these ironies and contradictions are being discussed among presidents and trustees in their closed boardrooms is hard to say. Golden, Michaels, and even Bowen cannot tell us. One place to look for evidence of concern is in the steady stream of books by university presidents (or ex-presidents) and deans, of which examples have lately come from the present and former presidents of Duke, Yale, Princeton, Michigan, Wesleyan, Emory, and other leading universities. Typically collections of reworked speeches, such books tend to be hampered and cautious lest anything be said to upset the people—trustees, alumni, faculty, students, the impressionable public—whom presidents have to keep satisfied.21

There is very little about admissions in these books, but here and there one gets hints of discord or even of clashing passions. Harry Lewis, for instance, former dean of Harvard College (he was fired by Lawrence Summers), writes lyrically about college athletes as young prodigies living alongside their schoolmates “in a glorious parallel universe…detached from the banality of ordinary life,” while Bowen, deploying damning statistics that show inferior academic performance by recruited athletes, believes that “college sports in their current form represent a distinct threat to academic values and educational excellence.”22 William Chace, former president of Wesleyan and Emory, has even published an argument with his former self—an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times billed as “the honest talk” he always wanted to deliver to incoming freshmen but never had the nerve to give. He writes, for example, that

more than half of the freshmen at selective colleges, public and private, come from the highest-earning quarter of households. Tell me the ZIP code and I’ll tell you what kind of college a high-school graduate most likely attends.23

The most substantive of the presidential books is Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should be Learning More, by Derek Bok, president of Harvard from 1971 to 1991 and currently its interim president. Bok paints a picture of colleges that, if not dysfunctional, are operating far below capacity. He questions the coherence and purpose of departmental majors, describes programs of study abroad as little more than recreational excursions, criticizes lecturers for their indifference to whether students learn anything, and, in general, holds faculty accountable for ignoring research about which teaching methods are most effective. Many of his points are cogent and timely, but when he tries to say what the fundamental aim of higher education ought to be, the best he can do is invoke today’s reigning banality—“Critical Thinking”—a term that seems to mean something like the ability to think through difficult problems. There is nothing wrong with that goal, but it is a decidedly instrumental one that conceives of students as problem-solvers-in-training to be deployed into a society that needs them.


None of these books—whether by outside critics or inside administrators—has much to say about the interior lives of young people eager for intellectual and aesthetic excitement, learning to examine old ideas in light of new imperatives. If—as Bowen, Golden, and Michaels variously insist—it is a scandal that so few disadvantaged students are able to attend our most advantageous colleges, it is also urgent, in the words (the italics are his) of Donald Levine, former dean of the college at the University of Chicago, to notice that

the scandal of higher education in our time is that so little attention gets paid, in institutions that claim to provide an education, to what it is that college educators claim to be providing.

In Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America, Levine has written a fascinating history of curricular debates at the University of Chicago, reaching back to its founding more than a century ago. It is a story of serious teachers responding to continuous change in the world and in their particular academic disciplines while always keeping in view the enduring goal of liberal education, which Levine succinctly calls “the cultivation of human powers.” To reach this end requires first of all the recognition that it is unending, in the sense that “the purpose of school education,” as John Dewey put it, “is to insure the continuance of education by organizing the powers that insure growth.” It requires the student to become informed about past and present—to learn, that is, something substantial about history, science, and contemporary societies in order to bring that knowledge to bear on unforeseeable challenges of the future. It requires teachers and students collaboratively to develop (as Bok recommends) analytic problem-solving abilities, but also, as the great Chicago humanist Richard McKeon wrote, to study literature and the arts in order to cultivate “appreciation of artistic, cultural, and intellectual values, as opposed to the random associated reflections which frequently… pass for appreciation.” And it requires the university to make clear to its students what it expects while expecting its faculty to work as educators as well as researchers.

Levine shows how one great research university has struggled to sustain and refresh these standards and goals. He describes how faculty from different disciplines have collaborated on “Big Problems” courses on themes such as “Evil,” or “Language and Globalization.” He discusses the University of Chicago’s brief experiment with awarding degrees only upon successful completion of difficult comprehensive examinations rather than merely for the accumulation of course credits. And he describes how one famous Chicago professor, the biologist Joseph Schwab, in a course dealing with philosophical texts eschewed “class discussions where voice flits around the room while impulses of exhibitionism, excitement, or puzzlement jump from one student to another” in favor of “structured discussion” by putting “one student in the hot seat for a while and working that person as thoroughly and creatively as possible” before moving on to another.

In contemporary universities, this kind of intimate and intense education is threatened and already rare. One Chicago alumnus, Lee Shulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, recalls that sitting in Schwab’s classes “fostered clammy hands, damp foreheads, and an ever-attentive demeanor.” Today, a student with those symptoms would probably drop the class for fear of a poor grade, and the teacher would risk a poor score on the end-of-semester evaluations.24 Moreover, if any “general education” program is to succeed, professors need to be tough not only on their students but on themselves—willing to plunge into subjects and texts with which they may not have engaged since they themselves were students, or which they may never have encountered at all.

Unfortunately, most incentives and rewards, especially in prestigious institutions, line up today against this kind of teaching and learning. Large classes are far more cost-efficient than small ones. An increasingly specialized faculty is likely to give only sporadic attention to general education, and is unlikely to reach consensus about what it should be. Even for those who care, spending time on undergraduate teaching is ill-advised in a world where publication and research are the routes to promotion and higher pay. For students, taking intellectual chances is risky as they compete for places in professional schools that regard grades as all-important. As Harvard’s former dean Harry Lewis sums up the matter:

Universities affect horror when students attend college in the hope of becoming financially successful, but they offer students neither a coherent view of the point of college education nor any guidance on how they might discover for themselves some larger purpose in life.

It is certainly a good thing that fresh attention is being paid in books such as Bowen’s, Golden’s, and Michaels’s to the question of whom education is for. But there remains the fundamental question of what it is for and what it should consist of. One way to bring these questions together would be to ask how well our colleges reflect our best democratic traditions, in which individuals are not assessed by any group affiliation but are treated, regardless of their origins, as independent beings capable of responsible freedom.

Opening wider the admissions doors is a necessary step toward furthering that end, but it is by no means a sufficient one. Colleges will fulfill their responsibilities only when they confront the question of what students should learn—a question that most administrators, compilers of rank lists, and authors of books on higher education prefer to avoid.

This Issue

March 29, 2007