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The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates

reviewed by Joseph A. Soares - May 14, 2007

coverTitle: The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates
Author(s): Daniel Golden
Publisher: Crown Publishers,
ISBN: 1400097967, Pages: 336, Year: 2006
Search for book at Amazon.com

When a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) produces an exposé of “corrupt admissions practices that favor the wealthy, the powerful and the famous” (from the front flap) at America’s elite colleges, one may assume that a strong fragrance is already wafting in from the proverbial fan. Daniel Golden, Deputy Bureau Chief in Boston for the WSJ, and a Harvard graduate, has written a magnificent page-turner with enough hard facts and individual testimonials to impress even a “strict scrutiny” Justice on the Supreme Court that affirmative action for privileged families is alive at highly prestigious private colleges.

The WSJ does not normally employ radical social critics, and Golden is no exception in that regard. As a hardworking journalist, living by his wits and will power, he is naturally appalled by the perks given to academically weak members of privileged families. Golden believes in meritocracy, as do most Americans; a position in a top college should be achieved by academic merit, and not by extraneous qualities, such as family pedigree. Elite colleges claim to be meritocratic, taking only the best, but Golden displays for us in vivid detail how they energetically accommodate the mediocre scions of the rich and well connected.

Only Golden, or someone very much like him, could have gotten the testimonies that bring this tale to life. Golden conducted hundreds of interviews, speaking with nearly everyone involved, from university presidents and the admission officers responsible for the sordid practices, to the young beneficiaries of wealth-based admissions and their rejected but academically more deserving peers. Golden is not the only one to document admission corruption, but he is the first to provide chapters in which individuals on every side of each issue are given a voice. We hear, for example, from the academically undistinguished Annie Grayson, and from her top-ranked schoolmate, Katherine Campo. Both applied to Harvard; Annie got in, Katherine did not. Academically-average Annie had something Katherine could not possessa venture capitalist dad ready to give in excess of one million dollars to Harvard (p. 37f).

Development admissions, youths admitted because their family will donate big bucks, is “the dirty little secret” (p. 54) of elite colleges. Golden relates stories about the practice from the mouths of the admissions directors who do it, and the parents who pay for it. Duke University’s admissions dean, for example, explained how each year the university’s president would place about 90 youths on the big-money-admit list (p. 51f, 57, 76f). And the mother of one of the beneficiaries of Duke’s president’s prerogative told Golden, “My child was given a gift, she got in, and now I’m giving back. Did my normal child take the place of somebody who could really make a difference in the world? Sure, yes” (p. 54). I’m not going to argue with that statement.

If one is more intrigued than outraged by development admits, Golden provides useful advice for would-be bribers. Subtlety is essential; explicit references to buying a place must be avoided; one just has to get one’s family on the development office’s list with a suitable donation, or the prospect of one, and then the process takes care of itself. Golden asks, “How much does it cost to buy your child’s way into college?” (p. 60) and then answers with precise dollar amounts, in a sliding scale depending on the elite status of the college. Anyone eager to write a check for a particular elite college will probably already have engaged a consultant who knows these guidelines, so it is not revealing too much to say that one needs between twenty thousand and a quarter of a million depending on the target.

Apparently, most students on America’s elite college campuses are there for reasons other than academic merit. Development admits are, Golden tells us, between 2 and 5 percent of all elite college students (p. 6). Other categories of academically questionable admits include: “recruited athletes (10 to 25 percent of students); alumni children…(10 to 25 percent);…children of celebrities and politicians (1 to 2 percent); and children of faculty members (1 to 3 percent)” (p. 6). With racial minorities (not counting Asians) weighing in at 10 to 15 percent (helped by race-sensitive admissions that one may justify as serving a public interest) that leaves, Golden reports, 25 to 40 percent of all slots for students selected primarily in terms of their academic merit (p. 7). And those positions are fiercely competitive, with Asian Americans, the “academic Jews of the late 20th century,” driving up meritocratic standards.

Golden’s chapter on Asian Americans is titled “The New Jews” because they, like Jews in the early 20th century, compose a disproportionate percentage of highly qualified applicants who face subtle and not so subtle forms of discrimination at elite colleges. It is well established that Harvard, Princeton, and Yale did everything they could in the 1920s to keep Jewish young men out (Jewish women were not an issue since all of those colleges were for men only until the late 1960s). They imposed restrictive quotas and even invented an I.Q. test that was supposed to show that White Anglo-Saxon Protestant boys (at the time they called them “Nordic,” the WASP label was not yet in use) were smarter than Jewish boys, even if Jewish boys could do as well or better on subject-specific tests. The pro-WASP and anti-Semitic I.Q. test was the SAT, introduced for all applicants at Yale in 1926. Anti-Semitic gatekeepers literally believed that while Jewish workaholics might technically master a particular subject, such as chemistry, the innate intellectual superiority of Nordic youths would be displayed through the SAT’s aptitude questions. Yale wanted to admit what it thought of as Nordic boys with hassle-free liberal-arts sensibilities, not overly ambitious Jewish boys with mechanical brains. The eugenicist language of Nordic supremacy was silenced during the Second World War, but the anti-Semitic quotas begun at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale in the 1920s were not dropped until the 1960s, and the SAT’s verbal analogies with all of their social biases intact lived on until the University of California put an end to the test in 2002. Ethnic and racial discrimination, however, carried forward into the present.

Today there is no disputing the fact that Asian Americans must meet higher academic standards than any other category of applicant, including all White candidates for entry to elite colleges. When the Office of Civil Rights investigated Harvard’s higher standards for Asians, it decided that the pattern was inadvertent, a byproduct of legacy and athletic privileges that were themselves not illegal (p. 202f). Asians, according to our government, are not discriminated against; they just have the wrong parents or made the mistake of valuing music more than muscle.

The literature on elite admissions scandals seems to go in waves. Between 1977 and 1985, three books came out (Dan A. Oren, Joining the Club: A History of Jews and Yale, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985; Marcia Graham Synnott, The Half-Open Door: Discrimination and Admissions at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, 1900-1970, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979; Harold Wechsler, The Qualified Student: A History of Selective College Admissions in America, NY: John Wiley & Sons, 1977), that documented the anti-Semitic discrimination of the first half of the 20th century. And now we have three more (Jerome Karabel, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005; Golden’s book being reviewed here; and my own, The Power of Privilege: Yale and America’s Elite Colleges, Stanford University Press, 2007). Karabel’s work provides a fly-on-the-wall 600 page history of non-meritocratic admissions practices at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. My book combines a historical narrative, featuring Yale, with national data that reveals the contemporary picture of who applies and gets in to which colleges. I present statistical tables on the odds facing students with different profiles of elite-college admission. Golden’s manuscript, however, is by far the best read on the current excesses brought on by an elite college obsession with wealth and fame. If one were to select a gift book that would open a friend’s eyes to the meritocracy scandal, go with Golden (but, of course, include a card recommending the other two for their historical and statistical depths).

Golden’s work, however, is framed by two questionable assumptions. The subtitle of his book (How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges – and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates) is somewhat misleading. He does not discuss at any length what a “ruling class” might be, say in contrast to an economic upper class or a power elite; and he simply assumes that America has one. He does have a chapter on the “legacy establishment” by which he means elite college graduates in Congress and in the higher education lobby, but this is not a substitute for examining whether the cause and effects of corrupt admissions are due to the collegiate perspectives of a privileged social class.

Elite colleges may be obsessed with money and power, but if families with those attributes are not all equally eager to attend elite colleges, then we have a case of institutional  marketing rather than a social conspiracy. There is scant evidence supporting the notion that dominant social groups use elite colleges to pass along their privileges to the next generation. Only 15 percent of all youths from top-income families attend tier-one colleges as ranked by Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges. But, and here is where the ruling-class myth draws its credibility, top-income youths make up 64 percent of tier-one colleges. Elite colleges are like a Mercedes-Benz auto, a status symbol but not a social class necessity. While mostly high-income people drive Mercedes, they are not requisite for achieving or retaining wealthconsequently, most top earners do not own one.

The key omission of Golden’s book concerns the role of the old SAT in elite-college admissions. He tries to sidestep the controversy on whether the SAT measured academic ability or one’s family’s resources. At the beginning, he informs the reader in a note that, “The book takes no position in the long-running controversy over whether SAT scores are a useful way to evaluate college applicants and predict future achievement” (p. ix). Implicitly, the book does take a position. Repeatedly we are given SAT scores to support the point that academically undeserving youths were being admitted while deserving youths were being excluded. The gap between a college’s mean SAT score and the score of, for example, a development case such as Annie Grayson (see above), is presented as evidence of corruption. Since Golden’s book was published in 2006 and the University of California (UC) exposed the SAT’s irrelevance to college admissions in 2001, one wonders why he did not consider the social costs of the SAT.

The UC findings are too important to pass over without comment. In February 2001, UC President Richard Atkinson asked its faculty and its Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS) to investigate its use of the SAT:

[BOARS] had the full files of 77,893 first-time first-year students, all of whom entered the University of California between 1996 and 1999. BOARS had data on gender, race, family income, parental education, high-school GPA, SAT I, SAT II, and everything else relevant from the applicants’ records. California’s analyses may be taken as the definitive test on what each part of the admissions formula adds to our ability to predict college grades or to identify late-bloomers in the talent pool.

UC discovered that the SAT I was inadequate as a predictor of college grades. The “SAT I was not statistically significant for two of the four years studied”; in other words, with their data the SAT I did not contribute any information to the prediction of college grades half of the time. For the other two years, the weak statistical power of the SAT I depended on not including socioeconomic variables in the regression model. When one added family income and parents’ education to a regression model predicting first-year grades, the SAT ceased to have any statistical value. The authors of the report wrote, “Once socio-economic variables are included, SAT I scores do not add to the prediction of freshman grades” (Soares, 2007, p. 155f). (The UC report is available here: www.ucop.edu/sas/research/researchandplanning/pdf/sat_study.pdf.)

The old SAT was the essential mechanism that allowed elite colleges to disguise social selection as academic selection. SAT scores never correlated as reliably with college grades as they did with family income. The higher the income, the higher on average the SAT score. The correlation was, of course, never perfect; one could find low scoring wealthy youths, and high scoring poor youths. On average, however, the correlation was sufficiently strong as to afford “financial need blind” admissions that never threatened to flood the campus with truly needy youths. Elite colleges could honestly offer to support anyone admitted, because the SAT assured them a deck stacked with candidates from full-fee paying families. For example, Yale granted aid to approximately 40% of all matriculating students before, and ever since, the introduction of “need blind” admissions. Over the decades, the “need blind” policy at Yale has had no meaningful impact on its percent of students receiving aid or on its socioeconomic status (SES) composition.

The UC’s exposure of the SAT’s SES biases forced the College Board and the Educational Testing Service in 2002 to agree to replace the old SAT with a fairer one starting in 2005. While there may never be a test that truly removes the disparities transmitted by family background, there is considerable room for improvement. For starters, subject tests and high school grades have always been better predictors of college grades, with less SES bias, than the old SAT.

The real scandal of elite-college admissions is not that development cases or legacies or athletes receive preferential treatment but that those colleges have relied on “academic” admission criteria that systematically favor privileged youths. Golden’s proposed reforms in his conclusions would remove some of the worst excesses of the system, but they would not bring an end to wealth-based elite college admissions.


Karabel, Jerome. (2005). The chosen: The hidden history of admission and exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Oren, D. A. (1985). Joining the club: A history of Jews and Yale. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Soares, Joseph A. (2007). The power of privilege: Yale and America’s elite colleges. Stanford University Press.

Synnott, Marcia G. (1979). The half-open door: Discrimination and admissions at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, 1900-1970. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Wechsler, Harold. (1977). The qualified student: A history of selective college admissions in America. NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 14, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14483, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 12:42:09 PM

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About the Author
  • Joseph Soares
    Wake Forest University
    E-mail Author
    JOSEPH A. SOARES is Associate Professor of Sociology at Wake Forest University. Most recently, Dr. Soares published The Power of Privilege: Yale and America's Elite Colleges (Stanford University Press, 2007). Currently, he is working on the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey to explain leisure patterns in America.
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