In 2004, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Golden won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on college admissions, a feat of which he repeatedly reminds us in "The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates" (Crown, 336 pages, $25.95). The award has apparently enlarged Mr. Golden's reporting talents. Now, he reads minds. At one dinner he crashes, the then-president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, tells wealthy alumni of a plan to boost financial aid. When the alums hold their applause, Mr. Golden smells a rat: "I interpreted the awkward silence to convey … a threat: If you make room for more low-income students by rejecting our children, we'll stop giving our millions."
Then again, they could just have been sipping their decaf.
Mr. Golden is on a mission to expose and obliterate inequities in college admissions. He disapproves of Asian stereotypes, preferential treatment for faculty children, and "development admits," students accepted by a college in order to cultivate donations from their families. Mostly, Mr. Golden focuses on legacy admissions — preferential consideration for the children of alumni. He outlines a stark quid pro quo: To get their kids in, rich alumni pay up; to build endowments, colleges accept kids they would otherwise reject. Meanwhile, worthier students of modest means must go to Denison.
That argument has college admissions officers at places such as Duke, Brown, and Princeton bracing for bad publicity. As if to pre-empt Mr. Golden's attack, Harvard last week announced that it was ending early admissions, which disadvantage needy students who must weigh competing aid offers. Princeton has followed suit; Yale may be next.
"The Price of Admission" is a liberal book, apparently inspired by criticism of affirmative action for minority students. That policy is under siege, Mr. Golden argues. Meanwhile, legacy admissions constitute affirmative action for the rich — America's "primogeniture," he writes. "Just as English peers hold hereditary seats in the House of Lords, so the American nobility reserves slots at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and other august universities."The integrity of our democracy is at risk. Senator Kerry and President Bush were legacy admits at Yale, and both were "mediocre students." Suddenly they were also mediocre presidential nominees.
Mr. Golden delights in naming names, and all his green-listing quickly feels voyeuristic. Mr. Golden isn't rooting out presidential malfeasance; he's digging up teenagers' report cards.And when he interviews his unfortunate subjects, Mr. Golden carefully tailors their quotations.
But Mr. Golden just doesn't like preppies. Some drink alcohol; many choose not to go to med school. He prefers straight arrows with straight A's and 1600 on their SATs, in both of which — grades and standardized tests — he places unquestioning credence. He holds out the California Institute of Technology as a model school. CalTech may not have much in the way of athletics, study of the humanities, or a social life — men vastly outrank women there. But it doesn't give preferential treatment to legacies, and to Mr. Golden, that's what counts.
One wonders about the scope of the issue. Mr. Golden quotes one scholar who claims that one Ivy League school gives legacies 60% of admissions slots. That is improbable.As Mr. Golden later states, at Harvard legacy admissions constitute around 13% of each class. Surely some of those children would have gotten in on their merits.Is democracy truly imperiled because 10% of Harvard's freshman class should have gone to Georgetown?
Meanwhile, the reporter's sins of omission are many. When "former Yale president" Benno Schmidt criticizes legacy admissions, Mr. Golden fails to mention that Mr. Schmidt helped found the Edison Project, a for-profit schools venture that would benefit from an end to the practice. Mr. Golden mentions that Oxford and Cambridge prohibit legacy admissions. He doesn't add that, largely as a result of fund-raising shortfalls, both universities have fallen below the top tier of American universities. He says that university presidents generally have a "right-hand man … to gratify key donors and alumni," and provides two examples. But one lost his job 20 years ago and the other is dead.
"The Price of Admission" isn't really a work of reportage. It's a jeremiad masquerading as an exposé.As a result, Mr. Golden ignores the possibility that there's a case to be made for the occasional bartered admission slot. He faults Brown for taking Vanessa Vadim, Jane Fonda's daughter, noting that Ms. Fonda gave Brown $750,000 for minority scholarships. Yet Ms. Vadim would probably be interesting to sit next to in class, and chronically underfunded Brown gets aid for minority students.
Mr. Golden blasts New York University for admitting the Olsen twins, actresses and entrepreneurs who at the time of their admission were worth an estimated $150 million apiece. "They did not rank in the top 15 to 20 percent of their [high school] class." Perhaps they had strong extracurriculars?
Mr. Golden's most excoriated victim may be Margaret Bass, a Groton senior ranked in the middle of her class. Presumably helped by her father's $25 million donation, Bass got into Stanford. Mr. Golden finds this outrageous. Is it — one admission slot in exchange for $25 million for buildings, professorships, and scholarships?
There are two problems in college admissions, neither of which is legacies. One is the unhealthy obsession many young people and their parents have with getting into a select few colleges, an obsession that Mr. Golden, by promoting the fallacy that one must go to Harvard to be a success in life, will only fuel.The other is the scarcity of underprivileged high school students prepared for the rigor of work at a topnotch college.
In the past several years there has been a movement, promoted most successfully by Harvard's Summers but catching on elsewhere, to recruit students from low-income families and pay their way entirely.Yet many young people who could benefit from such aid could not get in to Harvard on the same criteria Mr. Golden values. While privileged kids take advanced courses from highly trained teachers and partake in costly extracurriculars, poor children go to dilapidated high schools and do none of the above. Colleges such as Harvard labor to find the diamonds in the rough, but those gems are scarce, and sometimes struggle when they arrive on campus.
This inequity may not be as attention-getting as humiliating rich preppies, but it would make a worthy subject for Mr. Golden's next book. Meantime, is it too late to take back that Pulitzer?
Mr. Bradley is the author of "Harvard Rules — Lawrence Summers and the Battle for the World's Most Powerful University" available from HarperCollins.