Monday, April 20, 2009

Dan Golden on College Admissions

Dan Golden, who wrote "The Price of Admissions" and won a Pulitzer Prize, had this to say recently about college admissions:

Q. How will the economic hit on college endowments affect admitting students whose parents are donors or are potential donors?

A. My feeling is that the downturn in the economy and the drastic decline in college and university endowments could make the problem I wrote about -- preference based on wealth rather than ability --much worse because colleges are going to feel the strong temptation to let in the children of people who are still in a position to make major do­nations, no matter the qualification of those kids. It poses a real threat to whatever shred of independence college admissions still has.

Q. How pervasive is this at public universities?

A. Most selective flagship public universities, for example, have legacy preference. They give an edge to children of alumni. They often will treat out-of-state applicants as instate applicants, which is a somewhat lower bar for admission. Much like private universities giving preference to children of their donors, public universities of­ten give preference to children of their funders who are state legislators and public officials in charge of their budget. So there is a similar element of preference for wealth at public universities.

Q. How do universities suffer by choosing wealthy kids over kids who have met the guidelines on their own merit?

A. There's a variety of ways they suffer. One is if they're a pri­vate university, they're a non­profit and they get a tax break. And if they're a public university, they're directly funded by the government. And one of their missions is to try to identify diamonds in the rough and elevate poor kids of great potential to a higher place in society. Every time you deny one of those kids a slot because it's reserved for somebody who comes from a rich family but isn't as motivated, you lose something. I think you have an impact on the quality of debate in the classroom when you don't have economic diversity and when you're passing up the potentially best students.

Q. Is there an argument to be made that healthy endowments allow universities more opportunity to provide scholar­ships to underrepresented populations?

A. I certainly think univer­sities should have healthy en­dowments. The issue is, is the only way to have a healthy endowment by compromising the admissions process? In my book, I did a chapter on several colleges that raised a lot of money that are pure merito­cracies when it comes to admis­sions. And in case of Berea College in Kentucky, you have to be from a low-income family to go there, and yet, Berea raises huge amounts of money because it has a distinctive mission and a high-quality education. It's kind of a brand. If what a college offers is good enough and distinctive enough, they can raise the money on the quality of their services. They don't have to appeal to the baser instincts of parents who want to get their kids in a name school.

Q. What is your opinion on Wake Forest's decision, and the decision of other colleges, to make the SAT an optional part of the admissions process?

A. I have very mixed feelings about it. On one hand, I think it is disturbing to see a gap in performance on the SAT between different groups. It's worth asking the question why this is and is there bias in the test. Those are very important questions. On the other hand, sometimes I think the focus on the SAT also diverts attention from the kind of preferences I write about. The SAT should not be seen as the only factor that hurts low-income students. It should be seen as one of a great many factors in the admissions process that affects the chances of students without connections. My concern is that if you eliminate standardized testing, then you open the door even further in some ways to the admission of children of wealthy and powerful people, particularly with the economy the way it is. If you have a student from a wealthy background who does poorly on the SAT, that at least sends a warning signal. Without the SAT, where does that warning signal come from? Grades mean different things at different schools.

Q. How can middle-income parents with bright children get their children into highly selective schools?

A. They have to be realistic and understand the odds may even be longer than they look. You have to understand that there are many wonderful universities in this country that are not in the Ivy League or Duke or Stanford. There's a very wide choice out there, and I think parents should think more about what college has a program that suits their child rather than how do I get my child in one of the top five schools in the country because no matter how bright the child is, it's very difficult without some sort of connection. It's not that easy with a connection, but without one, it's very hard.

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