Every spring thousands of middle-class and lower-income high-school seniors learn that they have been rejected by America’s most exclusive colleges. What they may never learn is how many candidates like themselves have been passed over in favor of wealthy white students with lesser credentials—children of alumni, big donors, or celebrities.
In this explosive book, the Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Daniel Golden argues that America, the so-called land of opportunity, is rapidly becoming an aristocracy in which America’s richest families receive special access to elite higher education—enabling them to give their children even more of a head start. Based on two years of investigative reporting and hundreds of interviews with students, parents, school administrators, and admissions personnel—some of whom risked their jobs to speak to the author—The Price of Admission exposes the corrupt admissions practices that favor the wealthy, the powerful, and the famous.
In The Price of Admission, Golden names names, along with grades and test scores. He reveals how the sons of former vice president Al Gore, one-time Hollywood power broker Michael Ovitz, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist leapt ahead of more deserving applicants at Harvard, Brown, and Princeton. He explores favoritism at the Ivy Leagues, Duke, the University of Virginia, and Notre Dame, among other institutions. He reveals that colleges hold Asian American students to a higher standard than whites; comply with Title IX by giving scholarships to rich women in “patrician sports” like horseback riding, squash, and crew; and repay congressmen for favors by admitting their children. He also reveals that Harvard maintains a “Z-list” for well-connected but underqualified students, who are quietly admitted on the condition that they wait a year to enroll.
The Price of Admission explodes the myth of an American meritocracy—the belief that no matter what your background, if you are smart and diligent enough, you will have access to the nation’s most elite universities. It is must reading not only for parents and students with a personal stake in college admissions, but also for those disturbed by the growing divide between ordinary and privileged Americans.
A heavy-hitting, name-naming exposé by Wall Street Journal deputy bureau chief Golden concludes that Ivy League admissions offices do not practice meritocracy. Instead, top-drawer schools reward donor-happy alums and the “legacy establishment,” which Golden defines as “elites mastering the art of perpetuating themselves.” Moreover, the “preference of privilege” enables wealthy candidates to nose out more deserving working- and middle-class students, especially new immigrants and Asian-Americans. Golden backs his assertions with examples comparing the academic records of entering students: e.g., Al Gore’s son was admitted to Harvard despite his shabby record, although a better prepared Asian-American was rejected at all Ivy Leagues because he was “unhooked” (in admission parlance, not well connected or moneyed). Asian-Americans, notes Golden, are the “new Jews,” for whom a higher bar is set. Golden tracks shameful admissions policies at Duke, where the enrollment of privileged but underqualified applicants has helped elevate the school’s endowment ranking from 25th in 1980 to 16th in 2005; Brown is skewered for courting the offspring of entertainment industry notables. Golden suggests reasonable, workable tactics for resurrecting the antilegacy campaign in Congress (led by Senator Kennedy) and devotes a laudatory chapter to the equitable admissions practices at Caltech, Berea College (Kentucky) and Cooper Union (New York City). (Sept.)
“A delicious account of gross inequities in high places. . . . [Golden] is the Ida Tarbell of college admissions. . . . A fire-breathing, righteous attack on the culture of super-privilege.”
–Michael Wolff, New York Times Book Review
“Deserves to become a classic. . . . Why do Mr Golden’s findings matter so much? The most important reason is that America is witnessing a potentially explosive combination of trends. Social inequality is rising at a time when the escalators of social mobility are slowing.”
“I was bowled over by The Price of Admission. Daniel Golden makes a frightening case for why the playing field in higher education is still not level, despite all the attempts during the past several decades to make it so. This book is essential reading for anyone connected with higher education.”
-Henry Louis Gates, Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities, Harvard
“I didn’t want to believe that rich families and celebrities buy places for their children in America’s best colleges. But Daniel Golden’s evidence is overwhelming. This book should be read by everyone who cares about preserving higher education as a route for developing talent, not rewarding privilege.”
-Diane Ravitch, research professor of education, New York University, and author of Left Back
“If you did not attend or do not teach at a prestigious university, do not play polo well enough to pass it on, and do not have a cool million lying around to buy a place in the freshman class, your child might not make it into the school he or she deserves to attend. Daniel Golden explains why in this passionately written and bitingly acute book.”
-Alan Wolfe, professor of political science, Boston College, and author of One Nation, After All
“Daniel Golden makes a trenchant and convincing case that admission to America’s elite universities has too often turned into a system for reinforcing wealth and privilege, rather than opening new opportunities. He names names—and test scores, and family donation levels. In the wake of this book, the university establishment has some explaining to do.”
-James Fallows, national correspondent, The Atlantic Monthly, and author of Blind into Baghdad
“Anyone who believes that affirmative action for minority students is the big threat to college admissions by merit should confront Golden’s evidence that most elite colleges show much larger preferences for the privileged and the connected. I hope the book helps move colleges toward more equitable practices.”
—Gary Orfield, professor of education and social policy, Harvard Graduate School of Education
“Daniel Golden pulls back the curtain on the world of selective college admissions, where the already privileged are the truly preferred. With vigorous prose and artful anecdotes, Golden tells a chilling story of double standards and double crossings. He reminds us that when elite college admissions go to the highest bidders, we all pay the price.”
-Lani Guinier, Bennett Boskey Professor, Harvard Law School, and author of Lift Every Voice
“If you or your child is applying to a selective college this year, here’s a reading assignment: Pick up a copy of The Price of Admission , a new book by Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Golden. It’ll either give you a useful view into how the elite admissions game works or just leave you disgusted about the whole enterprise. Actually, probably both. Mr. Golden’s subject is the root unfairness in the way elite colleges choose who wins the coveted spots in their freshman classes. . . . Mr. Golden, himself a Harvard alum, details the ways colleges chase after the children of the rich and powerful, like paparazzi pursuing Paris Hilton.”
–Joshua Benton, Dallas Morning News
“An important new book. . . . With clarity and moral force, Golden shows that our greatest universities have been sacrificing their highest ideals on behalf of base pursuits unworthy of their names.”
“The Price of Admission is perfect for those curious about what goes on in college admissions offices because it shatters assumptions about acceptance to elite colleges. . . . The Price of Admission forces the reader to wonder how affirmative action can be deemed controversial when favoritism of the white and wealthy is overly prominent in elite colleges. . . . [F]or those interested in the injustices in higher education, this book is a must-read.”
–Kansas City Star
“[Golden’s] book arose from a series of investigative articles written for the Journal about how the wealthy, the famous, and the well-connected receive preferential treatment in getting their kids into elite colleges. Golden’s goal, which he achieves with an overwhelming amount of solid evidence gleaned from two years of tireless research, is to spotlight ‘a reality elite universities pretend doesn’t exist – that money and connections are increasingly tainting college admissions, undermining both its credibility and value to American democracy.’ . . . Who suffers in all this? Golden calls them ‘the unhooked,’ middle- and lower-income students who might have outstanding academic records or tremendous potential but who get squeezed out because their families aren’t rich, famous, or politically connected. At elite colleges, admissions is ‘a zero-sum game,’ says Golden, and self-congratulatory rhetoric about level playing fields and socioeconomic diversity runs up against the reality that ‘a large proportion of slots at these universities are reserved for the rich.’ So, in higher education, as in politics, access to healthcare and so much else in America, money talks. And, as the gap widens between the haves and the have-nots, money shouts. If you’re ‘shocked’ by this, you haven’t been paying close attention.”
“Golden has fun making trouble in the best journalistic sense. . . . The Price of Admission is a powerful reminder that the public will increasingly require selective colleges to defend their preferences; that not all are prepared to make their complex case well; and that some of their practices, finally, seem indefensible today.”