Duncan Shaw: Admissions process perpetuates inequality

03/25/2014 12:00 AM

02/15/2015 10:44 AM

As area college students flocked last fall to their ivory towers of learning, I was reminded of the time last spring when many of these students received their thick or thin admission envelopes.

Also last spring, The News & Observer published an op-ed of mine entitled “College Admission Policies Widen Social Divide.” In it I railed against, as I put it, “the game of admissions” at elite schools. Little did I know that the next day in the New York Times, regular columnist Ross Douthat would publish a similar piece, “The Secrets of Princeton.”

Given the state of the American economy since 2008, when the Great Recession began; the massive concentration of personal wealth among the rich in the years before, during and since that time; and how important a driver college admissions is in a person’s lifelong financial and the country’s long-term economic health, discussion of elite college admissions is ground that deserves more tilling. So, let’s call this sequel essay, “Railing Against College Admissions Redux”.

Socioeconomic inequality is increasing at the same time that privilege among elite families is, and this is harming our country’s economy and creating more and more societal anger. As the Times recently reported, financial aid at elite schools can be a shell game and those same schools have been paying mostly lip service to increasing the socioeconomic diversity of their student bodies. Regarding this point Douthat says, “rather than an escalator elevating the best and brightest from every walk of life, the meritocracy as we know it mostly works to perpetuate the existing upper class.”

“Legacy” is still widely practiced at the most elite schools, which results in privilege being perpetuated down the generations in these families. When I phoned admissions officers at Duke and Davidson for my background research, they proclaimed the big advantage they give legacies; they were proud of it. They said they like to keep Duke and Davidson “within the same families.”

Another Times story quoted a former admissions officer at Dartmouth, who said 40 percent of an admitted incoming class there is made up of recruited athletes, legacies, minorities and children of famous people, in descending order – whether or not these students truly have Ivy League credentials. The Ivies and other equivalent schools have to field their sports teams, so if you do, for example, equestrian, squash or crew, as well as sports that don’t smack of privilege, you can gain entry with lesser academic credentials. Elite families know this and accordingly structure their children’s lives and target these schools, gaming the admissions system in this and another key respect: they take maximum advantage of so-called holistic applicant review by stuffing their sons’ and daughters’ applications with extracurricular activities only the privileged can afford.

Admission practices at America’s best colleges help feed what sociologist Charles Tilly called “opportunity hoarding,” whereby privileged families relentlessly use their built-in advantages to get what they want (e.g., entry into Duke, leading to a lucrative job on Wall Street). Yet this hurts the socioeconomic mobility of everyone else and thus our country’s long-term economic growth – eroding and corroding our social fabric, and sowing seeds of unrest.

Yes, Syria’s chemical weapons and other big global crises grab the daily media headlines. But day-in, day-out and year-to-year, this problem I’ve described is much worse because it’s insidious, quietly doing its damage moment by moment within America. The problem and its redress have to do with nation-building at home: as a society, we must commit totally to making our meritocracy truly “an escalator elevating the best and brightest from every walk of life.”

Duncan Shaw lives in Hillsborough.


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