Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Top US Universities: Bastions of Privilege and Hypocrisy

The two leading candidates in the 2004 US presidential election, George W. Bush and John Kerry, were graduates of Yale University but neither of them were admitted on merit.

Us Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist opposes affirmative action for blacks but has no problem with preference for his son. Former Vice President Al Gore was able to get his son into Harvard even though he would not be accepted on merit.

In the current issue of the Economist, its US columnist Lexington writes that American universities like to think of themselves as engines of social justice, thronging with “diversity”. However, he says that over the past few years Daniel Golden has written a series of coruscating stories in the Wall Street Journal about the admissions practices of America's elite universities, suggesting that they are not so much engines of social justice as bastions of privilege. Now he has produced a book—“The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates”—that deserves to become a classic.

Golden shows that elite universities do everything in their power to admit the children of privilege. If they cannot get them in through the front door by relaxing their standards, then they smuggle them in through the back. No less than 60% of the places in elite universities are given to candidates who have some sort of extra “hook”, from rich or alumni parents to “sporting prowess”. The number of whites who benefit from this affirmative action is far greater than the number of blacks.

Lexington writes that universities bend over backwards to admit “legacies” (ie, the children of alumni). Harvard admits 40% of legacy applicants compared with 11% of applicants overall. Amherst admits 50%. An average of 21-24% of students in each year at Notre Dame are the offspring of alumni. When it comes to the children of particularly rich donors, the bending-over-backwards reaches astonishing levels. Harvard even has something called a “Z” list—a list of applicants who are given a place after a year's deferment to catch up—that is dominated by the children of rich alumni.

University behaviour is at its worst when it comes to grovelling to celebrities. Duke University's admissions director visited Steven Spielberg's house to interview his stepdaughter. Princeton found a place for Lauren Bush—the president's niece and a top fashion model—despite the fact that she missed the application deadline by a month. Brown University was so keen to admit Michael Ovitz's son that it gave him a place as a “special student”. (He dropped out after a year.)
Lexington says that most people think of black football and basketball stars when they hear about “sports scholarships”. But there are also sports scholarships for rich white students who play preppie sports such as fencing, squash, sailing, riding, golf and, of course, lacrosse. The University of Virginia even has scholarships for polo-players, relatively few of whom come from the inner cities.

The Economist's columnist says that you might imagine that academics would be up in arms about this.

Alas he says, they have too much skin in the game. Academics not only escape tuition fees if they can get their children into the universities where they teach. They get huge preferences as well. Boston University accepted 91% of “faculty brats” in 2003, at a cost of about $9m. Notre Dame accepts about 70% of the children of university employees, compared with 19% of “unhooked” applicants, despite markedly lower average SAT scores.

Lexington says that the most important reason for concern about Golden's findings, is that America is witnessing a potentially explosive combination of trends. Social inequality is rising at a time when the escalators of social mobility are slowing (America has lower levels of social mobility than most European countries). The returns on higher education are rising: the median earnings in 2000 of Americans with a bachelor's degree or higher were about double those of high-school leavers. But elite universities are becoming more socially exclusive. Between 1980 and 1992, for example, the proportion of disadvantaged children in four-year colleges fell slightly (from 29% to 28%) while the proportion of well-to-do children rose substantially (from 55% to 66%).

Golden's findings do not account for all of this. Get rid of affirmative action for the rich, and rich children will still do better. But they clearly account for some differences: “unhooked” candidates are competing for just 40% of university places. And they raise all sorts of issues of justice and hypocrisy. What is one to make of Mr Frist, who opposes affirmative action for minorities while practising it for his own son?

Or liberal academics who complain about inequality in the US but are happy to have their own children getting a free pass, at the expense of more accomplished applicants.

The poor left behind

Lexington says that two groups of people overwhelmingly bear the burden of these policies—Asian-Americans and poor whites. Asian-Americans are the “new Jews”, held to higher standards (they need to score at least 50 points higher than non-Asians even to be in the game) and frequently stigmatised for their “characters” (Harvard evaluators persistently rated Asian-Americans below whites on “personal qualities”). When the University of California, Berkeley briefly considered introducing means-based affirmative action, it rejected the idea on the ground that “using poverty yields a lot of poor white kids and poor Asian kids”.

There are a few signs that the winds of reform are blowing. Several elite universities have expanded financial aid for poor children. Texas A&M has got rid of legacy preferences. Only last week Harvard announced that it was getting rid of “early admission”—a system that favours privileged children—and Princeton rapidly followed suit. But the wind is going to have to blow a heck of a lot harder, and for a heck of a lot longer, before America's money-addicted and legacy-loving universities can be shamed into returning to what ought to have been their guiding principle all along: admitting people to university on the basis of their intellectual ability.