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Silver Spoon Admissions

Silver Spoon Admissions
September 5, 2006

When mere mortals apply to Brown University, they fill out an application and line up letters from teachers. But Brown University is known for attracting plenty of students whose exceptional qualities relate as much to their families' fame as their own accomplishments. Think Amy Carter, Cosima Von Bulow.

So perhaps it's not surprising that when then-Hollywood übermogul Michael Ovitz's son wanted to enroll in 1999, Ovitz (father, not son) sent word to Brown administrators. As described in a book about to be released, Brown admissions officers found the academic record of the younger Ovitz not close to what would be appropriate for an offer of admission. But they were pressured to admit him anyway, with top administrators far more concerned about the abilities of the elder Ovitz -- to host receptions for Brown administrators to raise money, to bring movie stars to campus, and presumably to help build Brown's endowment.

Though Ovitz's son was admitted, under special status, he didn't last long at Brown and left. Ovitz's daughter followed, apparently with more success. And Brown also gained, as the book describes Brown President Ruth Simmons gushing over Ovitz for arranging a campus appearance in which he appeared with Dustin Hoffman, and for hosting a reception for her at Ovitz's Brentwood mansion.

Neither Ovitz nor Brown University officials would respond to calls to ask about their reactions to the description of their relationship in The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges -- and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates (Random House). Daniel Golden, the author, won a Pulitzer Prize for exploring some of these issues in The Wall Street Journal, but his book contains numerous investigations that have not appeared previously, and that are bound to be controversial.

That American higher education is not a pure meritocracy is, of course, hardly news. But Golden's book has a level of detail about the degree to which he says some colleges favor the privileged that will embarrass many an admissions officer. Golden names names of students -- and includes details about their academic records before college and once there that raise questions about the admissions decisions being made. For good measure, he attacks Title IX (saying that the women's teams colleges create favor wealthy, white applicants), preferences for faculty children (ditto, although substitute middle class for wealthy), and accuses colleges of making Asian applicants the "new Jews" and holding them to much higher standards than other students.

Even before its official release, The Price of Admission is causing considerable fear among the admissions officers of elite colleges. If you want to see an admissions dean really happy, tell her that you can't find her institution in the index. The preferences highlighted in this book are the admissions preferences that college officials don't like to talk about (except perhaps at reunion weekend). Presidents and deans in many cases welcome the opportunity to talk about why they want racial or socioeconomic or geographic diversity in their classes, why it is important that a class include enough string players for the orchestra and enough running backs for the football team. Who hasn't heard an admissions story about recruiting a tuba player from Wyoming -- as the perfect symbol of the art and science of constructing a class.

But preferences for the rich and famous, or generous alumni donors? That's not something people like to talk about. Several deans accused Golden of taking the admissions process out of context (they said the numbers of rich who benefit are small), or being naive (when a billionaire is admitted to the ER, is treatment the same as that for an average Joe?), and of neglecting history (the preferences Golden described were far worse a few generations back). Some argued that it would be racist to eliminate preferences for the children of wealthy alumni now, when for the first time there are starting to be significant numbers of wealthy alumni who aren't white.

Others disputed some details about their institutions, but most acknowledged that the book is likely to increase scrutiny of their practices -- whatever they think of the fairness of the book and its message.

A chapter about Duke University, for example, says that a few years back the institution spread the word among private high schools that it wanted "development admits," those whose families had the potential to become big donors, and that strong academic credentials weren't a requirement.

Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions, said that while the book says this started prior to his arrival, it doesn't ring true to him. "It's certainly not my experience and it doesn't feel right to me as a description of what was happening," he said.

He acknowledged that Duke does consider -- "for a small number of students" -- the ability of their families to make contributions (financial and otherwise) to the university, but he stressed that he regularly "says No" to requests on behalf of such applicants, and that only those capable of doing well in Duke's classrooms are admitted. Asked whether it was fair to do so, even for a small number, he started by talking about how this was similar to the way he considers requests from academic departments, supporters of extracurricular groups, coaches, and others. But he paused when told that all of those potential candidates contributed -- at least in theory -- to the educational environment for all students by virtue of their skills or interests. Isn't money different?

Said Guttentag: "I don't think there is a selective private university that is the kind of university we are that to one degree or another doesn't do this, with the understanding that ultimately the university as a whole and the students benefit from the facilities or financial aid [donated]. When there is a significant financial interest in the university, that's one of the things we take into account."

The Author's Motives

In an interview, Golden said that he became interested in the issue of preferences for the wealthy while he was covering the judicial battles over affirmative action at the University of Michigan. "Everyone was writing about the boosts [in the admissions process] for minority applicants," he said, but he started to realize that there were also explicit boosts for the extremely wealthy and alumni children. He was struck, Golden said, by how little attention such preferences received.

"When people have talked about preferences that aren't based on merit, you have this lineup where the colleges and liberal groups are defending affirmative action and conservatives are attacking it and they are overlooking the elephant in the room," he said. "Both sides have a vested interest in overlooking preferences for the wealthy," he said, because colleges "need the money" they get from favoring the wealthy and conservatives "want their kids to get in."

Judging from those who have favorably blurbed his book, Golden is reaching both sides in the affirmative action debate. Support comes from strong supporters of affirmative action like Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Lani Guinier, with the latter saying that the book shows that "the already privileged are the truly preferred." But the book also wins an endorsement from Diane Ravitch, a critic of affirmative action, who writes that while she "didn't want to believe" the book's thesis, she found the evidence to be "overwhelming."

Chapters in the book focus on different issues: Duke is portrayed as favoring the wealthy, Brown the famous, Harvard University is said to help wealthy and well connected alumni, and the University of Notre Dame is accused of granting too much weight to alumni child status.

At Harvard, Golden focuses on two practices -- the use of the "Z List" and the impact of belonging to an elite group of the university's most generous donors. Like many universities, Harvard tells some of its applicants that they can enroll if they defer for a year, and tells others whom it rejects that they may want to apply again in a year. The Z List, according to Golden, is a special part of this policy. It is a list for 25 to 50 "well connected but often academically borderline applicants" who are told that they can enroll a year later. Membership is closely tied to connections to current or potential donors, and we're talking big donors, not those who send in their $50 checks, according to Golden.

Golden also writes about a Harvard group called the Committee on University Resources, which is generally restricted to those who have given the university at least $1 million, and with many members who have given much more. Of the 340 committee members who have children who are college age or are past college age, 336 children are enrolled or studied at Harvard -- even though the university admits fewer than 1 in 10 candidates and has typically turned away students with top academic records. While Harvard has acknowledged giving "all other factors being equal" preference to loyal alumni children, Golden suggests that this sort of enrollment pattern suggests a much larger preference than the university generally acknowledges.

A Harvard spokesman, via e-mail, did not comment directly on the Z List, but referred to a Harvard publication that encourages applicants to consider taking a year off before college. As for preferences for the children of the wealthiest alumni, the spokesman said that a "substantial majority" of alumni children are not admitted, that the SAT averages for admitted alumni children are slightly higher than those for other students, and that no students are admitted who aren't highly qualified.

At Notre Dame, a university that has become increasingly competitive in admissions over the last 20 years, Golden focuses in on preferences for alumni children. He notes that roughly 1 in 4 freshmen comes from a Notre Dame family, while fewer than 1 in 10 comes from a family in which neither family went to college. To drive home the point, he compares the academic records of specific students admitted and rejected by Notre Dame (and other colleges), to make the point that individuals with better academic and extracurricular records are being passed over for less qualified people from Domer families.

Daniel J. Saracino, assistant provost for admissions at Notre Dame, has read the chapter on his institution and said that he did not dispute any of the figures or examples. But he strongly disagreed that there was anything wrong with Notre Dame favoring its alumni, and said he objected to the idea that the university did so only for financial reasons.

"What [alumni children] are bringing is a unique perspective for Notre Dame, a passion for Notre Dame" that is a contribution to the campus climate in much the same way that a talented scholar, artist or athlete makes contributions to the climate, Saracino said. He added that it was "disingenuous" to suggest that there has "ever been a level playing field in admissions" and that the question should be whether the total of a university's policies end up promoting academic excellence, diversity and the health of the institution.

By focusing on alumni children, and not the university's growing racial diversity or growing financial aid budget or growing academic quality, Saracino said, "you really lose sight of the whole picture."

The Role of Women's Sports

A similar criticism is being leveled at Golden's critique of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which requires gender equity in education programs receiving federal funds. Title IX has prompted many colleges to create new women's teams and in a chapter called "Title IX and the Rise of the Upper-Class Athlete," Golden writes that teams such as fencing, crew and polo have resulted in more admissions slots and scholarships going to wealthy white women who don't need help. Given that many of these sports require expensive training and equipment, Golden writes that only those from prosperous families will learn to play, raising the question of "whether proficiency in squash or sailing or horseback riding should be considered a credential for a college education or just a token of social status."

In an interview, Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation, questioned Golden's logic. For starters, she said, some of the sports being created by colleges for women do not require country club membership -- even if it would appear that way. She said, for example, that rowing is notable among college sports (for men and women) in that people with certain kinds of strength and discipline can take up the sport in college, without prior experience. She also said that sports like lacrosse, once "prep school sports," are spreading, and that one can't make assumptions about the economic background of a female lacrosse player.

Lopiano did not contest that there are sports -- particularly equestrian events -- that require real money. But she said that there is a chicken-and-egg question that Golden is answering one way and she would answer another. College can't start teams in certain sports unless they have student bodies with potential players, she said, arguing that colleges don't create polo squads to attract wealthy students, but create polo squads because they already have wealthy students. "The rich kids came first, well before Title IX," she said.

While those whose institutions or causes are attacked in the book are among those taking a critical look, so are those in elite higher education whose colleges come out relatively unscathed. Williams College, for example, doesn't rate an index mention, but does give preference to alumni children and selected others.

Richard L. Nesbitt, director of admissions at Williams, said that roughly 11 to 14 percent of each class is made up of alumni children, and that that ratio has been unchanged for about 30 years. He said that on the "academic rating" applicants receive (based on grades, difficulty of high school program, test scores, teacher recommendations, etc.), there is "no statistical difference" between the alumni group and other students.

The admit rate of alumni children is significantly higher than that for all applicants, Nesbitt said, although he declined to reveal specifics, saying that Williams does not release that information for any subgroup of applicants. But Nesbitt cautioned against thinking that the higher rate means lower standards for that group. Applicants are generally better prepared if they have well educated parents, who are more likely to have the resources to help their children's education. Beyond that, he said, one benefit Williams does give to alumni children is to offer more information in interviews, so that students who are unlikely to be admitted get that message early and are less likely to apply.

Nesbitt said he had difficulty with Golden's thesis that admissions policies that give any preference to alumni children are limiting the overall socioeconomic diversity of elite colleges, and especially the enrollment of Asian students. Colleges like Williams are more diverse every year, he said, enrolling record numbers of Asian students while changing financial aid policies to attract more low-income students of all races and ethnicities.

As to those who do benefit from alumni or fund raising preferences, Nesbitt said that higher education depends on an "intergenerational social contract" in which people give to promote the college, and should be encouraged to do so.

Williams regularly looks at the impact of all of its admissions policies, and Nesbitt said that data indicate that a disproportionate number of student leaders in service activities are alumni children. He noted that 20 percent of the juniors selected by their peers to advise freshmen on their adjustment to the college are legacy admits. "That's reassuring to me," Nesbitt said. "If special consideration is given, there is giving back by these students, too."

In an interview, Golden said that he's not making the claim that all children of the wealthy are necessarily unworthy of attending a good college, or that none of them would be admitted minus their families' names and portfolios. But he said that colleges are taking "the easy way" to raising money and promoting campus cohesion.

In the book, he cites the California Institute of Technology as an example of an elite research university that gives no preference to alumni children, and also praises similar policies at Cooper Union and Berea College. In the interview, Golden acknowledged that the workload of the typical Caltech student is such that it's not really surprising that the children of Hollywood stars prefer Providence to Pasadena.

But Golden said that's precisely the point. Caltech is known for having incredibly talented students who work hard -- and the institute is no slacker in fund raising, without any help from alumni preferences.

"The fact is that they raise money based on the excellence of the program,"  he said. "If they can do it, the Ivies and Duke and Stanford and the others can do it, too. They may be raising money the easiest and simplest way, but it doesn't have to be that way."

As for his critics who say that college classes are more diverse and less focused on alumni than they were a few generations ago, Golden said that doesn't negate the problems with the policies today. And he said that "development admits" -- those who are rich with no previous connection to a college -- are on the rise. At the same time, he said, it's harder to get in to top colleges today, and even if they represent but a slice of higher education, they are an important one.

The Price of Admission notes that members of Congress periodically get interested in these issues, but tend to back off. Golden said he doesn't know if his book will change the debate, but he said that the policies deserve more scrutiny at the very least.

And if you are wondering, Golden is a Harvard alumnus whose father was a City College of New York alum -- he's no legacy admit. Golden has a son, who is 14. Asked if he fears that his book might not endear him or his son to Harvard's admissions office, Golden said that he didn't think his son would apply there. But what if he did? Would it be OK for him to check the box indicating that he would be a legacy?

Golden said that was an "interesting question" but that he wanted to focus on colleges, not applicants. "I"m not trying to point any finger of blame at the families. I understand that they want to do what's best by their child," he said. "It's the system that the colleges have set up that is responsible for this. They have set up a system that invites abuse."

 

 

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