Affirmative Action for the Rich

This long article is a summary of Daniel Golden’s book, The Price of Admission about how the undeserving rich get a free pass from the college admissions process.  Here is the first part of the article:

Golden, Daniel. 2006. “How Lowering the Bar Helps Colleges Prosper: Duke and Brown Universities Rise in Prestige in Part by Wooing Kids of Hollywood, Business Elite A Debate Over Michael Ovitz’s Son.” Wall Street Journal (9 September): p. A 1.

“Twice a year, after reviewing applicants to Duke University, Jean Scott lugged a cardboard box to the office of President Terry Sanford. Together, Ms. Scott, director of undergraduate admissions from 1980 to 1986, and Mr. Sanford pored over its contents: applications from candidates she wanted to reject but who were on his list for consideration because their parents might bolster the university’s endowment. Ms. Scott won some battles, lost others and occasionally they compromised; an applicant might be required to go elsewhere before being taken as a transfer.”

“There was more of this input at Duke than at any other institution I ever worked for,” says Ms. Scott, now president of Marietta College in Ohio. “I would have been very pleased to have the best class as determined by the admissions office, but the world isn’t like that”.”

“Over more than 20 years, Duke transformed itself from a Southern school to a premier national institution with the help of a winning strategy: targeting rich students whose families could help build up its endowment. At the same time, and in a similar way, Brown University, eager to shed its label as one of the weakest schools in the Ivy League, bolstered its reputation by recruiting kids with famous parents. While celebrities don’t often contribute financially, they generate invaluable publicity.”

“Admissions policies are just one ingredient affecting a school’s resources and reputation. Having a championship basketball team, a standout academic department or an innovative curriculum, for example, may also boost applications and donations. Moreover, the influence of parental wealth and renown on university admissions is not a new phenomenon. Traditionally, universities have relied on gifts from alumni, who are rewarded with “legacy” preferences for their children.”

“What makes Duke and Brown, among other institutions, stand out, is the way in which they ramped up and systematized their pursuit: rejecting stronger candidates to admit children of the rich or famous, regardless of their ties to the university.”

“Both schools had a behind-the-scenes power broker, a go-to man for prominent parents seeking to fast-track their children’s applications. Duke had Joel Fleishman, 72 years old, a wine connoisseur who sits on boards of companies run by Duke donors and the parents of Duke students. At Brown, the contact was the late David Zucconi, a barrel-chested ex-football player with a bone-crushing handshake, a booming Bronx accent and a resemblance to actor Jason Robards.”

“In the world of higher education, children of the rich and famous are known as “development cases,” pursued by presidents and fund-raisers often to the dismay of admissions staffs. Duke landed the children of fashion mogul Ralph Lauren and other corporate titans. Some of them became major donors, helping boost Duke’s endowment from 25th in 1980 ($135 million) to 16th in 2005 ($3.8 billion).”

“Brown raised its profile by enrolling children or stepchildren of politicians and celebrities, including two presidents, three Democratic presidential nominees, two Beatles and seven Academy Award winners. A particularly controversial case was the son of Hollywood superagent Michael Ovitz, whose application sparked a debate within Brown.”

“Celebrity students generally lag behind their classmates in academic honors. But their prominence — and that of their parents — helped transform Brown into a top destination for students with a creative or artistic bent. Brown accepted just 13.8% of applicants for this year’s freshman class, the lowest percentage in its history, as the number of applications rose sharply. Its endowment has risen from 29th nationwide in 1980 ($123 million) to 26th in 2005 ($1.6 billion), although it remains the lowest in the Ivy League.”

“This success, however, carries a cost. As the number of applicants has soared in recent years, premier schools admit as few as one in 10 students, a far more selective rate compared with a generation ago. To make room for an academically borderline development case, a top college typically rejects nine other applicants, many of whom might have greater intellectual potential.”

“Some colleges have been known to accept all applicants from a given high school to conceal the development admit, and thereby avert criticism from rejected students. Known in the trade as “considering context,” the practice shortchanges worthy applicants from other high schools who might otherwise have made the grade.”

“Duke has acknowledged the existence of development admits. University spokesman John Burness says the ensuing donations help the university fund facilities improvements and financial aid, among other areas. He says the donations “frequently do not fund” Duke’s endowment, whose rise is “principally related” to a successful investment strategy.”

“Brown’s dean of admissions, Jim Miller, says the school wouldn’t comment on the credentials of any particular student, citing confidentiality rules. In general, he says, “all students at Brown are admitted because the university believes they are qualified, can meet the rigorous demands of our academic program, and will be active and contributing members of our community”.”

“When Mr. Sanford (1917-98), a former North Carolina governor, assumed Duke’s presidency in 1970, he found a university with a budget deficit and alumni too young to make bequests any time soon.”

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