The Price of Admission (Crown, 2006) alleges that America's richest and most powerful families receive unacceptable access to the country's elite colleges and universities. Naming names and revealing some discomforting facts, it goes inside institutions and outlines the practices that draw high-powered (and high-income) students and their families to campus.
Author Daniel Golden's research--as well as his perspectives on admissions--are detailed, unsubtle, and certainly controversial. After lighting a fuse with his book, Golden answered the following questions from University Business.
University Business: The Price of Admission has started some, well, conversations in admissions offices around the country. What are some of the more interesting comments you've heard or received so far?
Golden: Since actions speak louder than words, the greatest tribute my book has received came a week after its publication when Harvard eliminated its early admissions program. I'd like to think--and have reason to believe--that the timing of that announcement was a response to my book.
University Business: You included some very specific numbers and stories in the book. How were you able to get administrators to reveal such inside information?
Golden: Many current and former college and high school administrators provided information to me because they believe that college admissions should be fair and meritocratic and they're deeply troubled by preferences for children of alumni and donors and other privileged groups. If they work for a college, they may have advocated internally for a top applicant--only to see that student rejected and a lesser candidate accepted due to influence from the development office. Often they also are frustrated that affirmative action attracts so much criticism, while affirmative action for the wealthy is hardly ever scrutinized.
University Business: What would you most like administrators to take from your book?
Golden: I would like college administrators to realize after reading my book that it's time for them to be more transparent about their admissions processes. Colleges often try to stonewall journalists like me by pretending that they maintain a firewall between fundraising and admissions, or that legacy preference is only about tradition, not money. Greater candor would be helpful both to the media and the public.
University Business: Why is it important for the public to know about the admissions practices of elite colleges and universities? They make up such a small percentage of the country's institutions of higher education.
Golden: Although many successful people did not go to elite colleges, these top schools still confer at least a small advantage in terms of future wealth and power, and still produce a disproportionate share of the country's leaders. The last presidential election, for instance, pitted one Yale graduate against another; the prior presidential election was Yale versus Harvard. (Bob Dole in 1996 was the last major-party presidential candidate without an Ivy League degree.) So it's important for the public to understand how these schools choose their students.
Also, as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, I'm used to thinking in financial terms. Although elite colleges make a small percentage of the total number of institutions, their huge endowments comprise the bulk of higher education assets. Thus in monetary terms these schools have a disproportionate influence.
University Business: It could be argued that our society isn't really a meritocracy and that preferential practices that favor advantaged individuals will always be a part of higher education. Do you believe otherwise?
Golden: Of course our society isn't a complete meritocracy; that's the point of my book. Will college admissions ever become more meritocratic? I have no idea--I'm not a prophet--but I do think that one of the most common human fallacies is that the status quo will never change. One of America's most redeeming qualities is its capacity for change and reform, and higher education may not be immune to that impulse.
University Business: Now that students and their families know about the practices you unveil in your book, should they be doing anything to work with or change the system?
Golden: I hope my book gives them a more realistic understanding of the admissions process--so parents and students will understand the steep odds that unconnected applicants face at elite colleges, and perhaps look more closely at colleges that don't have big names but offer excellent educations. I would also like to see alumni and donors themselves lobby colleges for more egalitarian admissions practices.
University Business: The Price of Admission is not exactly a positive take on college admissions. Yet you do include some examples such as Caltech that could be promising for the future. What is your take on where admissions is heading?
Caltech, Berea College, and Cooper Union all show that colleges can raise money without compromising the integrity of their admissions process. I hope that more colleges will emulate their examples, and that initiatives by Harvard and other universities to eliminate early admissions and recruit more low-income students are harbingers of a new approach.