ten years ago the au­thor’s book on le­gacy pref­er­ence caused an up­roar. but the price of ad­mis­sion has only got­ten higher.

Town & Country (Philippines) - - CONTENTS / APRIL - By Dan Golden

The se­cret cost of ad­mis­sion to top uni­ver­si­ties? A mil­lion dol­lars, you say? Not even close.

When ge­orge­town Univer­sity an­nounced in septem­ber plans to make amends for its his­tor­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion in the slave trade, pres­i­dent John J. de­gioia drew a cu­ri­ous par­al­lel. The de­scen­dants of 272 slaves sold by the univer­sity in 1838 to pay off debts, he said, would re­ceive the same ad­van­tage in ad­mis­sions as the chil­dren of ge­orge­town alumni.

He seemed un­aware of the irony. alumni chil­dren at pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ties like ge­orge­town tend to be white and to come from af­flu­ent fam­i­lies. in other words, de­gioia was equat­ing a rem­edy for past racism with a pol­icy, known as le­gacy pref­er­ence, that it­self dis­crim­i­nates against low­in­come and mi­nor­ity stu­dents.

“if ge­orge­town re­ally wants to come to grips with its dis­crim­i­na­tory past and present, it would also end ad­mis­sions poli­cies like le­gacy pref­er­ence that un­con­scionably fa­vor the al­ready priv­i­leged,” said michael dan­nen­berg, di­rec­tor of strate­gic ini­tia­tives for pol­icy at ed­u­ca­tion re­form now, a think tank af­fili- ated with the ad­vo­cacy group democrats for ed­u­ca­tion re­form. as a U.s. se­nate staffer in the early 2000s, dan­nen­berg pushed un­suc­cess­fully for leg­is­la­tion re­strict­ing ad­mis­sions pref­er­ence for alumni chil­dren.

de­gioia’s com­par­i­son un­der­scores the stay­ing power of le­gacy pref­er­ence—de­spite crit­ics like dan­nen­berg and me. my 2006 book, the price of ad­mis­sion, doc­u­mented how col­leges ex­ploit ad­mis­sions as a fundrais­ing tool, low­er­ing their stan­dards by hun­dreds of saT points to let in chil­dren of well-heeled alumni, busi­ness ty­coons, politi­cians, and celebri­ties. Us­ing stu­dents’ names, class ranks, and test scores, i chal­lenged the col­leges’ pro­pa­ganda that they ei­ther don’t con­sider fam­ily wealth and background in ad­mis­sions or just use it to break ties be­tween equally qual­i­fied can­di­dates. By ex­pos­ing th­ese prac­tices, i hoped to spur both trans­parency and re­form.

the price of ad­mis­sion stirred at­ten­tion, con­tro­versy, and out­rage. i de­cried what i called the “pref­er­ences of priv­i­lege” in ap­pear­ances on ivy league cam­puses and on tele­vi­sion shows from The col­bert re­port to night­line. i even tes­ti­fied be­fore a se­nate com­mit­tee. my find­ings could not be dis­missed as merely anec­do­tal, be­cause a mount­ing stack of aca­demic stud­ies cor­rob­o­rated them. one put the ad­van­tage of be­ing an alumni child at 160 points on the saT, which had a pos­si­ble range of 400 to 1600. an­other ex­am­ined ad­mis­sions de­ci­sions at 30 highly selec­tive col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties and con­cluded that the odds of a le­gacy be­ing ac­cepted at the alma mater of one of his or her par­ents are more than seven times bet­ter than an or­di­nary ap­pli­cant’s. and polls in­di­cate that most amer­i­cans dis­ap­prove of le­gacy pref­er­ence. in a 2016 gallup poll, 52 per­cent of re­spon­dents said col­leges should not con­sider whether an ap­pli­cant’s par­ent is a grad­u­ate, 35 per­cent said it should be a mi­nor fac­tor, and 11 per­cent a ma­jor fac­tor.

yet noth­ing has changed. in fact, the prac­tice has only in­ten­si­fied. The al­lure of re­ward­ing po­ten­tial bene­fac­tors with an ad­mis­sions break for their chil­dren, es­pe­cially in an era when col­leges are in­creas­ingly de­pen­dent on pri­vate giv­ing, has sim­ply proven too strong. a decade af­ter my book came out, sources still pep­per me with new in­dig­ni­ties. one ex­am­ple: de­spite fin­ish­ing dead last in his prep school class, the scion of a prom­i­nent busi­ness fam­ily was ad­mit­ted to a highly rated univer­sity where his mother is an alumna and donor.

as they re­ject more ap­pli­cants ev­ery year, most top uni­ver­si­ties still make room for as many alumni chil­dren as they did a decade ago. lega­cies make up 22 per­cent of this year’s fresh­men at notre dame, 13 per­cent at yale, and be­tween 18 and 19 per­cent at the Univer­sity of north carolina at chapel Hill. at prince­ton, ad­mis­sions dean Janet lavin rape­lye told me re­cently, lega­cies have com­prised be­tween 11 and 15 per­cent of ev­ery fresh­man class for a quar­ter-cen­tury; this year it’s at the up­per end of the range. “They tend to be very good stu­dents who have achieved at a high level in their high schools,” she said. “They have taken ad­van­tage of the ad­van­tages that have been given to them.”

although the ac­cep­tance rate for lega­cies at elite uni­ver­si­ties has de­clined, th­ese can­di­dates have main­tained or widened their edge over oth­ers. The Univer­sity of penn­syl­va­nia, for ex­am­ple, ad­mit­ted 38 per­cent of alumni chil­dren in 2005, as against 21 per­cent of all ap­pli­cants. This year it took 22 per­cent of lega­cies, ver­sus 9 per­cent over­all. so lega­cies were ac­cepted at more than twice the av­er­age rate this year, a big­ger pro­por­tional ad­van­tage than in 2005.

elite col­leges have be­come adept at in­su­lat­ing the le­gacy edge from crit­i­cism by link­ing it to pref­er­ences for more sym­pa­thetic groups, from slave de­scen­dants to stu­dents who are the first gen­er­a­tion in their fam­i­lies to go to col­lege. re­cent fresh­man classes at U. penn have con­tained al­most as many first-

gen­er­a­tion stu­dents (13 per­cent) as alumni chil­dren and grand­chil­dren (16 per­cent).

“There’s a nice sym­me­try to that,” said ad­mis­sions dean Eric J. Furda. “The door to the Penn tra­di­tion is there, but also for stu­dents com­ing into the col­lege en­vi­ron­ment for the first time” in fam­ily his­tory.

One out of ev­ery 10 Ge­orge­town un­der­grad­u­ates is a le­gacy. The univer­sity ad­mits 29 per­cent of alumni chil­dren, as against 16 per­cent of ap­pli­cants over­all. Ty­ing the slav­ery and le­gacy pref­er­ences to­gether “makes some sense to me,” Ge­orge­town ad­mis­sions dean Charles Dea­con said. “If you’re go­ing to de­fend a le­gacy pol­icy, surely you should ap­ply it to” other mem­bers of the Ge­orge­town com­mu­nity who were mis­treated his­tor­i­cally. Other elite uni­ver­si­ties that owned slaves are dis­cussing whether to adopt a sim­i­lar ad­mis­sions pol­icy, he said. He added that Ge­orge­town will for­ever give an edge to the de­scen­dants of all slaves whose la­bor has ben­e­fited the univer­sity, even if af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion is banned. The U.S. Supreme Court has con­sis­tently up­held af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion in ad­mis­sions, most re­cently in June in Fisher v.

Univer­sity of Texas. Elim­i­nat­ing af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion in col­lege ad­mis­sions, as sev­eral states have done, of­ten spurs a back­lash against le­gacy pref­er­ence.

Mean­while, col­leges woo alumni chil­dren more as­sid­u­ously than ever. The last decade has seen a pro­lif­er­a­tion of perks: le­gacy lun­cheons, work­shops on ap­pli­ca­tion strat­egy, early dor­mi­tory move-in, and even lu­cra­tive schol­ar­ships. Ten years ago, as I noted in

The Price of Ad­mis­sion, alumni chil­dren were “over­whelm­ingly white and rich.” At the time, though, ad­mis­sions deans as­sured me that the le­gacy ranks would be­come more di­verse as the chil­dren of mi­nori­ties who gained ac­cess to elite uni­ver­si­ties with the ad­vent of af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion reached col­lege age. But that doesn’t seem to have hap­pened. Based on a Har­vard Crim­son sur­vey of fresh­men en­ter­ing Har­vard in 2015, alumni chil­dren re­main a ho­mo­ge­neous group. Lega­cies con­sti­tuted 16 per­cent of the class—but they were one-fourth of white fresh­men and more than 40 per­cent of fresh­men with house­hold in­comes of $500,000 or more.

Closely as­so­ci­ated with le­gacy pref­er­ence, and also fa­vor­ing the rich, is early ad­mis­sion. It typ­i­cally re­quires a bind­ing col­lege com­mit­ment, hin­der­ing low-in­come stu­dents from shop­ping around for the best fi­nan­cial aid pack­age. Early ap­pli­cants, who are of­ten alumni chil­dren, tend to be af­flu­ent and savvy about the col­lege ad­mis­sions game. Days af­ter my book was pub­lished, Har­vard an­nounced that, to be fair to mi­nor­ity and low-in­come ap­pli­cants, it was aban­don­ing early ad­mis­sion. Prince­ton and the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia fol­lowed its lead. A few years later, though, all three uni­ver­si­ties re­versed their de­ci­sions, be­cause many top can­di­dates wanted to ap­ply early.

Since then early ad­mis­sion has ex­panded na­tion­wide. U. Penn en­rolled 54 per­cent of its class this year un­der early de­ci­sion, up from about 45 per­cent a decade ago. Since stu­dents ad­mit­ted early are locked into at­tend­ing Penn, they boost the univer­sity’s yield rate, or pro­por­tion of ac­cepted stu­dents who en­roll, which is of­ten re­garded as a barom­e­ter of a school’s stand­ing. Penn’s web­site en­cour­ages alumni chil­dren and grand­chil­dren to ap­ply early to be “given the most con­sid­er­a­tion.”

Low-in­come stu­dents on fi­nan­cial aid ac­count for much of the growth in Penn’s early de­ci­sion en­roll­ment, es­pe­cially be­cause the school in­sti­tuted a pol­icy in 2008 of meet­ing all need with grants in­stead of loans, Furda said. Still, he added, “I don’t think it will ever be to the point that it’s as di­verse as our reg­u­lar de­ci­sion pool.”

One rea­son col­lege ad­mis­sions of­fices still gen­u­flect to ma­jor donors is that other sources of rev­enue aren’t keep­ing pace with costs. In the past decade many top uni­ver­si­ties have in­creased fi­nan­cial aid. Har­vard, Yale, and Stan­ford give a full ride, in­clud­ing tu­ition plus room and board, to stu­dents whose fam­ily in­come is be­low $65,000. At Stan­ford, par­ents who earn less than $125,000 pay no tu­ition.

Where is the money com­ing from? Not tu­ition alone. In­tim­i­dated by wide­spread crit­i­cism of price hikes, pri­vate col­leges re­duced their av­er­age an­nual in­crease in tu­ition and fees from 3 per­cent be­tween 1995–’96 and 2005–’06 to 2.4 per­cent be­tween 2005–’06 and 2015–’16, ac­cord­ing to the Col­lege Board. Notre Dame’s fi­nan­cial aid bud­get has risen 50 per­cent since 2010, al­most twice as fast as the price of at­tend­ing the univer­sity, ac­cord­ing to Don Bishop, as­so­ciate vice pres­i­dent for un­der­grad­u­ate en­roll­ment. Penn’s un­der­grad­u­ate fi­nan­cial aid bud­get has soared 155 per­cent since 2005, more than dou­ble the 65 per­cent rise in tu­ition.

“Rec­og­niz­ing that the mar­ket is more com­pet­i­tive and that we’re con­strained in our abil­ity to raise prices, we are go­ing to be more de­pen­dent on phi­lan­thropy,” said Don­ald Heller, provost and vice pres­i­dent of aca­demic af­fairs and pro­fes­sor of ed­u­ca­tion at the Univer­sity of San Fran­cisco. “That means there’s prob­a­bly more pres­sure on ad­mis­sions of­fices around lega­cies and de­vel­op­ment ad­mits”—ap­pli­cants rec­om­mended by the de­vel­op­ment (i.e., fundrais­ing) of­fice.

And here’s the kicker: The per­cent­age of alumni do­nat­ing to the coun­try’s top 20 uni­ver­si­ties dropped over the last 10 years, but the av­er­age alumni con­tri­bu­tion nearly dou­bled—mean­ing that this cru­cial source of support is com­ing from large checks writ­ten by a rel­a­tive few. In 2015 alone, seven in­di­vid­u­als made gifts of more than $100 mil­lion apiece to higher ed­u­ca­tion, in­clud­ing one be­quest. And as the ul­tra­rich boost phi­lan­thropy to uni­ver­si­ties, the price for giv­ing their prog­eny an ad­mis­sions edge has es­ca­lated cor­re­spond­ingly. “Peo­ple think that if they give a cou­ple hun­dred thou­sand or a mil­lion they’re big donors. That’s just no longer the case at ma­jor uni­ver­si­ties,” Notre Dame’s Bishop said. On the other hand, if some­one gives $15 mil­lion, “which could fund 10 to 15 schol­ar­ship kids in per­pe­tu­ity, do you let their chil­dren have some spe­cial in­ter­est? Yes. But they still have to be quite good.”

One of the most no­table le­gacy fam­i­lies of late is, of course, the Trumps. The pres­i­dent earned his bach­e­lor’s de­gree at the Whar­ton School of the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia and served on the school’s board of over­seers. Two of his chil­dren, Don­ald Jr. and Ivanka, also have Whar­ton de­grees. A third, Tif­fany, grad­u­ated from Penn in 2016. (Although she didn’t go to Whar­ton, she still qual­i­fied for le­gacy pref­er­ence un­der Penn’s pol­icy.) But it was a kid who only later joined the Trump clan whom I men­tioned in The Price

of Ad­mis­sion. Jared Kush­ner was in high school, start­ing the col­lege ad­mis­sions process, when his fa­ther, New Jer­sey real es­tate devel­oper and NYU alum­nus Charles Kush­ner, pledged $2.5 mil­lion to Har­vard, in 1998. Har­vard named both Charles Kush­ner and his wife Seryl to its Com­mit­tee on Univer­sity Re­sources, which con­sists of its big­gest donors. Jared en­rolled there in 1999. (A spokes­woman for the Kush­ner Com­pa­nies says there was no re­la­tion­ship be­tween the gift and Jared’s ad­mis­sion, adding, “Jared was an ex­cel­lent stu­dent in high school.”)

Ten years ago elite uni­ver­si­ties were al­ready so selec­tive and gave pref­er­ence to so many groups (lega­cies, de­vel­op­ment ad­mits, ath­letes, un­der­rep­re­sented mi­nori­ties, etc.) that can­di­dates who didn’t fit any of th­ese cat­e­gories faced steep odds. In an in­ter­view for my book, Daniel Sara­cino, then Notre Dame’s as­sis­tant provost for en­roll­ment, told me, “The poor shmuck who has to get in on his own has to walk on wa­ter.”

Today the prospects for th­ese un­con­nected ap­pli­cants, who are pre­dom­i­nantly mid­dle-class whites and Asian-Amer­i­cans, are even bleaker. The poor shmucks have to walk on wa­ter—dur­ing a tsunami. Sara­cino, now a higher ed­u­ca­tion con­sul­tant, switched metaphors in a re­cent con­ver­sa­tion. “The pie isn’t get­ting any big­ger, but the pieces all want to grow a lit­tle bit,” he said. “It will come at the cost of the ev­ery­day kid.”

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