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Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites

by Mitchell L. Stevens

Harvard University Press, 320 pages, $25

In the upper reaches of Manhattan’s East Side, the pristine McMansions of Palo Alto, and the verdant streets of Westchester County, life has surpassed satire in the lengths undertaken by anxious parents to secure admission for Junior at America’s best colleges.

New parents nervously whisper about how to wheedle their little bundle of joy into not just the best high schools but also the best elementary schools, preschools, and college-prep play groups. Guidance counselors and teachers in exclusive middle schools whisper of eleven-year-old girls as possible HYP candidates”not hip , as in cool or popular, but HYP , as in potential students for Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. And from suburban sea to suburban sea, armies of Volvos and Saabs arrive each day at school parking lots, driven by grown men and women who, at the pinnacle of their own careers, have now organized their lives around fulfilling the scheduling whims of their children’s soccer coaches and ballet teachers.

In short, an entire way of life”one might even say the American dream itself”has been constructed to create legions of children who fulfill whatever it is that the admissions officers at Harvard say constitutes the ideal American youth. What is more, it is a way of life that only the privileged can afford, meaning prestigious colleges have become the main conduit by which the American elite pass along privilege to their children.

For a country that prides itself on freedom and opportunity, it is nothing short of astonishing. And it is made all the more worrying by the fact that we as a nation have given very little thought to Harvard’s ideal”much less to how the folks in admissions decide what it is”or to what Junior will learn once he gets there.

In his new book, Creating a Class: College Admissions and the ­Education of Elites, Mitchell Stevens gives a fascinating behind-the-scenes account of how prestigious colleges make these sorts of decisions and shows how what they decide has shaped the lifestyle and values of upper-middle-class America. Stevens spent a year and a half working in the admissions office of a ­liberal arts college in New England (though he never says which one). Now, as professor of education and sociology at NYU, Stevens’ book is conversant with both academic and journalistic accounts of the college-admissions world. But it is his first-hand experience that makes the book such a gem”Stevens’ narrative brings us into the thought-world of the admissions office itself, allowing the reader to view the process from the inside out.

Even while relating the ways in which the system privileges the wealthy and connected, Stevens is able to refrain from making pat moral judgments about college administrators and admissions officers. Unlike Daniel Golden’s recent book, The Price of Admission , which excoriated admissions and development officers at prestigious schools for giving breaks to the children of donors and alumni, Stevens shows that the true reasons behind such privileging have much more to do with larger sociological factors than with devious administrators.

Privileging, for Stevens, is in fact the name of the game, and it is a major burden of his book to show how and why this is so. As the Berkeley education scholar Jerome Karabel recently noted in a New York Times op-ed, students from the top socioeconomic quartile are a full twenty-five times more likely to attend top-tier colleges than their young counterparts from the bottom quartile. Stevens holds that elite schools are, at bottom, in the business of passing along socioeconomic privilege from wealthy parents to their progeny”or, as the book’s title indicates, that the admissions process at prestigious colleges is largely a class affair.

At Stevens’ college, there were no fat cats sitting around in smoke-filled rooms concocting schemes to convey privilege to the wealthy. Indeed, just the opposite was the case. College officials were, by and large, well-intentioned people with a genuine passion for education and a desire to help the less fortunate. The same was true of the parents whose children made up his college’s entering class: Far from stepping over the bodies of the poor to put their progeny first, the parents Stevens de­scribes understandably want to give their children a shot at the good life. There are no demons in Stevens’ account, only good people who earnestly (even if perhaps a bit myopically and selfishly) want the best for their students and children, and so have fashioned these kids’ lives around their education.

The problem is that this way of life costs money”lots and lots of it. The AP courses and academic guidance that young students need if they are to compete in the college-application pool do not come cheap. To get them, parents often spend many thousands of dollars to buy homes in the best public-school districts or on tuition for prep school. The myriad extracurricular activities that applicants need to present for a picture of well-rounded talent are far from free: Summer sports camps, voice lessons, and so on all come with a hefty price tag.

Most families simply cannot afford the way of life that makes the high AP scores, stellar SATs, and extracurricular successes possible. And so, long before anyone sits down to fill out an application, the lion’s share of the decisions have already been made. Upper-middle-class Junior may well have to settle for Haverford rather than Harvard, but either way he will likely wind up with a respectable diploma and a high-paying job after graduation. Lower-middle-class and poor kids, on the other hand, probably did not even know which childhood hoops they needed to jump through to achieve the good life, and could not have paid for them if they had.

One of the most fascinating parts of Stevens’ book is his blow-by-blow account of how this plays itself out in the recruiting and admissions process. Stevens personally visited several high schools to recruit for his college, and the contrast between the haves and the have-nots could not have been sharper. Guidance counselors at the large urban high schools on his route were overwhelmed, with little time to lend in the service of a tony New England liberal arts school. Well-intentioned visits to such schools tended to have little effect; students there did not seem to know much about the admissions process. By contrast, prep-school guidance counselors greeted Stevens with handpicked groups of students, coached and eager to ask well-informed questions.

The lesson Stevens drew was that colleges seeking after “diamonds in the rough” face a significant information problem. Such students often do not know that schools like Stevens’ college would love for them to apply, nor do they know how to prepare themselves to be competitive applicants. Colleges, on the other hand, often have trouble finding such students”harried public-school guidance counselors do not have the time to point them out and so they tend to fall through the cracks.

What ends up happening, as a result, is predictable. While some less economically fortunate students wind up making it, most do not, and so the parking lots at colleges like Stevens’ tend to fill up with the same cohort of BMWs and Saabs year after year. By the end of the book, Stevens concludes that the admissions process at elite colleges, while “deceptively” meritocratic, at bottom functions as the socially acceptable means by which our professedly class-neutral American society goes about “laundering privilege” from one generation to the next.

The first question to pose to Stevens, perhaps, is whether anything ought to be done on a large scale at all. American taxpayers already fund a large system of state universities and community colleges; as Stevens himself notes, a college education is thus in principle not out of reach for the majority of American citizens. Is an Ivy League education similarly a birthright that ought to be made equally accessible to everyone? This is not clear, especially given a recent study by Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale (duly noted by Stevens) that found that the prestige level of one’s college education does not, for most students, actually have much impact on later economic success.

No doubt, the societal status gap between such schools remains vast. Nor is there much doubt that the Ivy League schools and their equivalents provide an extra level of security that state schools do not”their small size and energetic counseling services serve to ensure that graduation rates remain high, while at Behemoth U. there is not always much to prevent Junior from receiving an education in Mario Kart and beer-guzzling. But that does not necessarily mean that society does a grave injustice by providing students with a path to Penn State rather than the University of Pennsylvania.

That is not to say that elite schools can and should do nothing. The same study by Krueger and Dale found that, while most students do not benefit appreciably from prestigious diplomas, students from the bottom income quartile do. Hence the recently publicized efforts initiated by Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and similar schools to recruit low-income students and increase financial-aid packages. Caroline Hoxby, a Harvard economist, is for her part quite optimistic about the potential of such efforts, especially with regard to recruiting. And if Stevens is right to highlight the information gap faced by low-income students as particularly significant, then such endeavors make a great deal of sense.

So one may reasonably conclude, from the state of affairs described by Stevens, that a little information might go a long way toward ameliorating some of the inequality found on American college campuses. If stepped-up recruiting efforts on the part of colleges are matched by greater funding for high school guidance counselors, more low-income students would at least have a chance at achieving their full potential. Of course, this would do little to change the economic disparity that continues to place elite colleges out of reach for most American students. But it would, at least, be a step in the right direction.

In recent years there has been a flood of books and articles decrying the aimlessness and moral confusion at the heart of American higher education”Anthony Kronman’s Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life , Harry Lewis’ Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education , the on-the-ground description offered by David Brooks’ now classic Atlantic Monthly essay “The Organization Kid,” and Tom Wolfe’s biting novel I Am Charlotte Simmons , to name just a few.

While elite schools may indeed do well at reproducing economic privilege among America’s well-to-do, they appear to be doing far less well at instilling character and building moral depth in their students. Harry Lewis, former dean of Harvard College, argued that “Harvard teaches students, but it does not make them wise . . . . Harvard articulates no ideals of what it means to be a good person, as opposed to a well person.” David Brooks found that Princeton students”typically brilliant, hardworking, and well-intentioned”had little in the way of a moral vocabulary. Character formation was apparently not included in the college curriculum. And Tom Wolfe, for his part, painted a truly chilling scene of ­status-conscious striving and exploi-tation, where materialist biology reigns supreme over morality and libidos alike.

The danger, it would seem, is that an entire way of life has been built around we know not what. Those few of us who can afford it have spent countless hours and dollars to mold our children into Harvard’s ideal American youth, but Harvard itself does not seem to know any more about that ideal than we do. We have been driving Volvos to nowhere. Stevens’ Creating a Class book tells us much about what that drive consists of, but he does little to help us see where we are going. For that we will need other books and older wisdom.

Jordan Hylden , a graduate student at Duke Divinity School, is a Harvard alumnus and a former junior fellow at First Things .