The Gatekeepers

Jacques Steinberg

Read February 2004

[I have enough thoughts about this topic that I wouldn't be surprised if I revisit this review several times, using it as an excuse to talk about the broader picture of higher education.]

Steinberg's book is compelling reading for those of us associated with higher education in the US. Steinberg, a New York Times journalist, gets to track in detail the activities of Wesleyan University for one admission cycle. The school, and the applicants who make it in into the book, offer a surprisingly open look at their activities and their lives. And because Wesleyan is a good representative of an elite institution, this is an important cultural checkpoint.

The portrait that emerges from this book is, however, rather scary.

This book has attracted no small controversy because it exposes the influence race plays in admissions. There's a certain unfortunate schadenfreude in some reviews from the failure of some of the affirmative action recruits, which seems to miss the point (which I think one can safely say without necessarily approving of the practice in the first place). What is truly disappointing is that, while the process is definitely human (these are people reading folders and gathering background, not machines crunching numbers), it's unclear to what extent the admissions committees look past race to the larger socio-economic context. Perhaps the set of cases Steinberg followed was impoverished in this regard, or maybe he didn't have space to accommodate another applicant; either way, one can only hope the admissions officers look more broadly than this book suggests they do.

The single issue that most bothered me was the excessive reliance on SAT scores. I was a good test-taker, but equally unimpressed by the standardized tests themselves, unclear of what they were measuring or what they said about me. It's disturbing to think that a group of professionals who do admissions for a living would pay so much attention to these scores to the exclusion of the wealth of information they have about each candidate. I couldn't help but think that the process we use for graduate school admission (which I've been involved in multiple times) is far more detailed and meaningful—and this within a department, done by people who have other full-time jobs.

Second, the book exposes the weak underbelly of America's admissions process: the influence of who knows whom. The book presents the delicate dance between universities and the top high schools: virtually no university can ignore the schools, so they get pushed around; in return, the schools would lose their standing if they didn't place graduates at the top universities, so they do their share of groveling. This works out to the advantage of a lucky few graduates, but it's got to be pretty harsh coming from an anonymous public schools, sitting on the sidelines. You may get muddy playing tug-o-war, but it's better than not playing at all.

Finally, there's the scarcely credible hypocrisy of the admissions staff over a student who has an incident with a pot brownie. The student has a mediocre academic record, and she comes from a good school that has sent lots of other strong applicants, all of which are potentially sufficient reasons for rejecting her. Yet the committee can't help but be appalled by this incident. Pot brownies? I have to hope the people making admissions decisions aren't generally the naïve and moralistic group this bunch appear to be. (And this is Wesleyan we're talking about, for goodness sake.)

It's easy to pick lots of other nits with the admissions process. There is, as always, the matter of legacies, though someone who complains too loudly about this way of raising funds ought to look into the financial state and morale of even British and European universities. The obscene emphasis on class presidents and on “leadership” might explain the phenomenon of too many chiefs on campuses, with the result that a lot gets initiated compared to what actually gets done (this is, of course, a highly subjective, unsubstantiated opinion). Students, in turn, cultivate resumes with a scary passion, once again leading to a strange kind of homogeneity on campus. Steinberg is also able, through one of the Weselyan committee members, to highlight the indifferent position some universities take on the matter of Asian-Americans. (All too often, universities see the Asian-Americans as upper-middle-class doctor and engineer parents, forgetting or conveniently ignoring the truly poor who drive taxis, fish for shrimp, and perform other miscellaneous jobs. Cue to concerns about socio-economic diversity.)

Purely for personal reasons, I would have liked to see Steinberg follow in detail the admission of an international student too. (He touches on the topic, but too briefly.) International students occupy a strange niche in the ecology of diversity. On the one hand, one would imagine students from multiple countries are the very essence of diversity. On the other hand, the financial aid policies of even the elite universities—in fact, especially the elite universities (with highly marketable identities)—mean that most international students come from the highest economic echelons, thereby smothering much of the diversity they were supposed to bring. (Kudos, then, to the good liberal arts schools of the Midwest, for instance, who pursue their missionary roots much more gently through merit scholarships and other financial aid for international students, with no concomitant religious pressures. Thanks, OWU.)

As a professor on the receiving end of the work of the admissions committee, I can't help but wonder about matters of qualifications, and of diversity of a different sort. While Steinberg discusses the desire to assemble committees out of people with a wide variety of life experiences (good), there is little or no attention paid to matters of academic diversity. (It's easy to see why “hard” sciences, for instance, might have reason to be displeased with admissions committees.) Indeed, it's hard not to see many committee members as parking for a while, trading on some uniqueness of their lives to secure this important post from which to push their agendas (or pad their resumes). Can universities afford to leave a decision this important to such groups? Would you buy an entering class from these men and women?

If there's a silver lining here, it may be that in the end, the elite schools have only so much influence over the course of the Republic. Oh, sure: the 2000 presidential race came down to Havard (Gore) vs Yale (Bush) vs Princeton (Nader), as if this were no more than a prim collegiate football contest. But America respects its state schools, and thank goodness for that. (And the best state schools, like Berkeley, can match up against the best private schools.) Indeed, people who fixate on America's private institutions (such as The Economist, who should be more refined in their analysis) forget that most private schools aren't competitive, and more to the point, the vast majority of students in fact attend public institutions.

The genius of the American system is neither the private nor the public schools—it's the combination that keeps the system so enviable. The result is a system with choice at differentiated price-points. Indeed, it wouldn't be surprising to see private four-year schools eventually distribute across a variety of prices. This happens already, but subtly, through financial aid (again, my informal research into this suggested that the Midwestern liberal arts colleges gave aid to many more students than the Ivies—and more money, on average), so those who can afford to, pay. A direct measure of your public standing is how many people you can get to pay sticker price.