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

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9781400097975: The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges--and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates
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In this explosive book, the Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Daniel Golden exposes the corrupt admissions practices that favor the wealthy, the powerful, and the famous.

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. 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—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.

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About the Author:

Daniel Golden is a senior editor at ProPublica. He was previously the Deputy Bureau Chief at the Boston bureau of The Wall Street Journal, and a reporter at the Boston Globe. The recipient of numerous journalistic honors and awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the George Polk Award, he holds a B.A. from Harvard College. He lives with his wife and son in Belmont, Massachusetts.

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1

HOW THE "Z-LIST" MAKES THE A-LIST: Harvard's Payback for Big Donors
On a mild evening in early spring, corporate executives, lawyers, oil barons, money managers, high-priced consultants, and heirs to Brahmin fortunes strolled unrecognized across Harvard Yard from their suites at the Charles Hotel or Harvard Inn. Hardly a black or Hispanic face could be seen as the gray-suited, gray-haired businessmen--some leaning on walkers, others spry and ruddy-faced, with athletic builds honed on Harvard crew or tennis teams--and women in silk scarves and slimming black pants made their way through an unmarked door into Annenberg Hall. There was no campus announcement of the gathering, and no press coverage allowed.

Bouquets of forsythia and tulips decked out the usually spartan freshman dining hall. The visitors enjoyed cocktails, wine, and appetizers--beef tenderloin, crab cakes, asparagus spears--as well as the attentions of Lawrence Summers, then Harvard's president. Several guests chatted about the latest show by the Hasty Pudding Club, the student theatrical society that puts on a musical burlesque every spring featuring Harvard men in drag.

Then the Harvard band, perched in a balcony overhead, struck up "Ten Thousand Men of Harvard," and the group sat down to a candlelit dinner. Wine refills put the crowd in an expansive mood, and they frequently interrupted Summers's after-dinner speech with applause. The sole exception was when he outlined his initiative to boost enrollment of students from families earning less than $40,000 a year by making their Harvard educations free. He appeared to wait for an ovation that never came. I interpreted the awkward silence to convey a message, perhaps even a threat: If you make room for more low-income students by rejecting our children, we'll stop giving our millions.

The April 8 dinner kicked off the 2005 annual meeting of what is likely the wealthiest advisory group in higher education: Harvard's Committee on University Resources. Little known and rarely mentioned in the media, COUR is not actually a committee in the usual sense--it doesn't formally make or advise on university policy--but Summers or any other Harvard president needs its support. It consists of Harvard's biggest donors, who form the financial backbone of an endowment that totaled $25.5 billion as of fiscal 2005, making it the nation's largest, more than $10 billion ahead of second-place Yale's.

Committee membership has tripled in the past fifteen years, propelled by the university's record-setting $2.6 billion fund-raising campaign, which lasted from 1994 to 1999 and relied heavily on multimillion-dollar gifts. "As a member of COUR, you will be asked to play a leading role in the proposed campaign," committee chairman Robert G. Stone Jr. told members in 1991 in the first issue of its newsletter. By 2004, COUR's 424 members, handpicked by university fund-raisers, included ten of Forbes magazine's four hundred richest Americans, led by Microsoft chief executive Steven Ballmer (2005 net worth: $14 billion), oil tycoon Robert Bass ($3 billion), and banker David Rockefeller ($2.5 billion). Most are alumni of Harvard's undergraduate college or its graduate programs, but not all; Bass, for instance, went to archrival Yale, followed by business school at Stanford.

To qualify for membership, donors must generally have given at least $1 million to Harvard--or be expected to do so--although a few smaller donors were picked for their prowess in raising large sums from wealthy classmates and business associates on Harvard's behalf. The seventy-three members of the group's inner circle, the executive committee, have typically given or raised at least $5 million, and sometimes much more.

A free dinner and a newsletter aren't the only signs of Harvard's gratitude to COUR members. The school summons top faculty to the committee's annual meeting to expound on such topics as nanotechnology and the science of aging. It names athletic facilities, research centers, faculty chairs, fellowships, and scholarships after donors.

And, in the most valuable reward of all, Harvard gives a massive admissions edge to their children, who flourish in a selection process that lacks conflict-of-interest rules and systematically favors the wealthy and well-connected. Although Harvard bridles at any suggestion that its slots are for sale, I found numerous instances in which a child's acceptance closely preceded or followed a major gift from the parents, giving at least the appearance of a quid pro quo. Most notably, a politically connected New Jersey real estate mogul with no Harvard ties pledged $2.5 million to the university only months before his elder son--a student below Harvard's usual standards--was admitted.

Harvard admits fewer than one in ten undergraduate applicants, turning down more than half of candidates with perfect SAT scores. Nine-tenths of its freshman ranked in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. Its graduate and professional schools boast similarly high standards: Harvard law school, for instance, accepts only 11 percent of applicants.

Children of major donors enjoy far better odds. By examining Who's Who entries, alumni records, and other sources, I found that 218 of 424 COUR members, or more than half, have had at least one child at Harvard. Many donors send more than one child to Harvard, bringing the total number of COUR members' offspring who have enrolled there over the years to at least 336. Nearly three hundred of these children attended Harvard as undergraduates, with most of the rest attending the law and business schools, which provide an entree into the corridors of American power.

Since, by my count, at least eighty COUR members either do not have children or their children have not reached college age, the number of COUR offspring who have gone to Harvard works out to 336 children of about 340 eligible members--an astonishing enrollment rate of one child per major donor. Given that the typical married couple in the United States has one or two children, that wealthy women tend to have fewer children than the average, and that many children of COUR members never apply to Harvard at all, a conservative conclusion would be that the university welcomes well over half of applicants from the families of its biggest donors.

Through their easy access to Harvard, the children of COUR members don't just gain intellectual polish. They also acquire a prestigious career credential and high-powered friends and spouses, consolidating their families' place in the American aristocracy. "Last year we completed a double 'hat trick' when my youngest daughter, Morgan, married Harvard classmate John Stafford," investment banker Ralph Hellmold, a member of the Committee on University Resources, boasted to his Harvard classmates on their fortieth reunion in 2002. "Thus, each of my three daughters has not only graduated from the college, but married her own Harvard man."

Executive committee member James O. Welch Jr., former vice chairman of RJR Nabisco Inc. and a Harvard alumnus who endowed a professorship in computer science, leads the way in the admissions sweepstakes, with six sons who graduated from Harvard. Welch declined comment. Similarly, Finn M. W. Caspersen's generosity has not gone unrewarded in admissions to Harvard Law, a school whose preference for children of well-heeled alumni was satirized in Legally Blonde. The heroine of the hit 2001 comedy, played by Reese Witherspoon, learns from a classmate that her dim-witted ex-boyfriend, Warner Huntington III, "got wait-listed when he applied. His father had to make a call."

Caspersen, a Harvard Law alumnus who also sits on the COUR executive committee, formerly headed consumer lending giant Beneficial Corp., which specializes in making high-interest loans to consumers with poor credit. He and his wife have endowed several faculty chairs at the law school and donated to its library, where the rare-book room is named after them. Caspersen, who now runs a private investment firm, chairs a $400 million fund-raising campaign that the law school launched in 2003. Four Caspersen children--Finn junior (who also has a Harvard bachelor's degree), Erik, Samuel, and Andrew--have enrolled at Harvard Law. The Caspersens declined comment.

Professor David R. Herwitz, who served for years on the law school's admissions committee, told me that Caspersen's sons were fine students and "totally admissible." He added, "Any school, particularly one with a long tradition, becomes something of a family. What kind of a crazy world would it be if people who had gone to the school and made contributions would be told: your kid is very close, but not close enough?"
Undoubtedly some children of COUR members were superb candidates whom Harvard might have admitted even if they were unhooked. For others, the preferences of privilege outweighed test scores or grades below Harvard norms. These fortunate candidates with marginal credentials--like many minorities aided by affirmative action--are often saddled with self-doubt, wondering if they deserved their Harvard admission.

Most COUR children at Harvard have been legacies--a group to which Harvard acknowledges giving at least a small admissions boost. Harvard accepts one third of alumni children, nearly four times its overall admission rate. Legacies constitute 13 percent of the student body. William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard, who has been a guest speaker at COUR meetings, told me that he personally reads all applications from alumni children. He said the average SAT score of legacies admitted to Harvard falls just a couple of points below the school's overall average, and that he uses legacy status as a tie-breaker between comparable candidates. Asked how he defends a policy so little rooted in merit, Fitzsimmons, a 1967 Harvard graduate, said the school's alumni "volunteer an immense amount of their free time in recruiting students, raising money for their financial aid, taking part in Harvard Club activities at the local level, and in general promoting the college." He added, "They often bring a special kind of loyalty and enthusiasm for life at the college that makes a real difference in the college climate . . . and makes Harvard a happier place." Therefore, he said, "when their sons and daughters apply, we review their applications with great care and will give a 'tip' in the admissions process to them."

Loyalty and volunteerism aside, the biggest reason for Harvard's legacy preference is money. Alumni donations drive Harvard's endowment, and the ability and willingness of graduates to donate to the university influence the size of the preference given to their progeny. The better than one-in-two admission rate for COUR members' children in my survey indicates that children of big alumni donors enjoy more than the tie-breaker edge Fitzsimmons describes. This finding corroborates a 1991 study by David Karen, now a professor at Bryn Mawr College, which concluded that alumni children at Harvard lose most of their admissions advantage if they apply for financial aid. In other words, if alumni want their children to have an admissions edge at Harvard, they should become bankers, lawyers, or dentists--not social workers, teachers, or ministers. "My interpretation was that if you couldn't parlay a Harvard degree into an income sufficient to pay for your kid's education, Harvard was less likely to make the same mistake twice," Professor Karen told me.

The boost for children of alumni on the University Resources committee can amount to far more than a couple of SAT points. Harvard alumnus and Boston venture capitalist Craig L. Burr, a member of the Committee on University Resources, gave his alma mater at least $1 million in the mid 1990s; his son, Matthew, applied in 1998. Matthew Burr ranked fourth in his class at the Groton School but had an SAT score of 1240. Three-fourths of Harvard students have SAT scores of 1380 or higher, and the average freshman score is about 1470. Matthew applied to one other college, Williams, which rejected him.

"I just don't test well," Matthew told me. He wrote an application essay about a family safari to Kenya--a likely tip-off, if one were needed, of the Burrs' wealth to admissions readers. His Groton counselor, he said, made it clear to him that his family connection would "help out" with Harvard admissions.

Craig Burr told me his donation to Harvard had "absolutely nothing to do" with his son's acceptance. "Matthew did not need any help because he had phenomenal grades," he said.

"I was qualified in getting in to Harvard," Matthew said. "At the same time, I do think legacy helped me. I don't think legacy is a fair criterion for people to get into college. But for me, that was the way it was."

Like Matthew Burr, Jessica Zofnass had excellent grades in prep school but an SAT score (1410) below the Harvard average. Jessica, who enrolled in 2004 (followed by her sister Rebecca in 2005), is the daughter and granddaughter of Harvard alumni; her father, COUR member Paul Zofnass, endowed a scholarship in environmental studies. "I don't think I got into Harvard for my SAT scores," Jessica told me. "Hopefully it wasn't just legacy. More of what I did at Choate [Wallingford, Connecticut, prep school Choate Rosemary Hall] was being well rounded, captain of a lot of sports teams, president of the French Club.

"It's really exciting for me to be here. But it's a very unjust society if the people who already have the benefits and the advantages and already have a wonderful life get an additional leg up. I'm very torn. If I were born into a family that was less advantaged, I would feel very bitter about the legacy status."

Paul Zofnass, a financial consultant to environmental firms, donated between $250,000 and $500,000 to Harvard in 2003-4, when Jessica was a senior at Choate, and says he is also "very committed" to raising donations from his Harvard classmates. Zofnass told me Jessica "clearly had the credentials for someone to get into Harvard. I've also known plenty of kids who were every bit as good as her and they didn't get in. Why? My involvement helped a little bit. Had I had nothing to do with Harvard, she probably would have gotten in, but I'm not sure."

Another COUR member's son, a Harvard undergraduate, told me that he graduated in the middle of his prep school class with an SAT score in the 1300s--"not too good by Harvard standards," he acknowledged. His father, an alumnus, donated more than $1 million to the 1990s campaign, plus half a million in his son's freshman year. Still, the student said he felt no qualms over his admission.

"Definitely legacy was a factor, but I don't feel like someone else should be here instead of me," he said. "I don't feel guilty. A lot of people I know at Harvard are very, very, very, very intelligent, but they just sit on their asses. With my work ethic and potential, test scores that may be a little less than some others shouldn't get in the way of possibilities for me and my life." He said his father donated to Harvard out of love for the institution, not to sway admissions.

Most of these upper-class legacies went to prep schools, where they participated in aristocratic pastimes such as squash, crew, and sailing. Largely played by affluent whites, these sports offer a college admissions entree unavailable to most public school and inner-city students. Some of the COUR children were skilled enough--and had the right pedigree--to impress Harvard coaches who submit lists of potential recruits to the admissions office.
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