[Review] “The Price of Admission” by Daniel Golden & “The Privileged Poor” by Anthony Abraham Jack
I had to combine the reviews for these two books because 1. I read one and listened to the other concurrently, and 2. their power only multiplied in combination. The two books examine inequality in elite colleges in America at two different stages — the admissions process and actual campus life, but have much in common. Most importantly, they illustrate how the same power structures reproduce across stages of college life. The fact that the odds of admissions are stacked against poor minorities is well-known (I don’t mean this just in statistical terms, but also in access to resources in the lead up to college admissions), but even once admitted to college, these students face hurdles and despair, far removed from the happy, diverse students lounging in grassy quadrangles as pictured on college brochures.
I picked up the books during the week the U.S. Department of Justice accused Yale of discriminating against Asian-American and white applicants in the admissions process. In the three or so months between my graduation and this news, I had steered largely clear of engaging with non-fiction books and news about elite colleges. I was burnt out and couldn’t be bothered reliving the worst parts of my Yale years. But these books made me realize that once again looking at these familiar places with an outside-in perspective can help illuminate and bring closure.
In The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates, former Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Golden investigates the admissions committees, development offices (in charge of raising money for the college), and alumni groups of “Tier-1” American colleges, ranging from Harvard and Brown to Duke and Notre Dame, but the observations could are easily generalisable across the whole lot of elite colleges. Each chapter focuses on one university and one aspect of how wealthy, usually white, people game the admissions system to get their children into college — legacy, donations, athletics, faculty and celebrity quotas and so on.
I was impressed by the depth of Golden’s reporting and amazed by the number he managed to get to speak on-the-record about topics that even I was hesitant to broach around my friends at Yale (legacy, donations etc.) While paying lip service to diversity, university administrators court donors and alumni in a bid to increase their school’s standing, eventually getting caught up in a never ending cycle of fundraising and competition that plagues elite higher education in America today. These observations reminded me of an episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast, in which Gladwell tells the story of an oddball philanthropist who donated to a high need, no-name state school instead of elite universities that already have billion dollar endowments — the kinds of places most wealthy people donate to. Golden’s reporting solves this paradox with a conclusion that is unsurprising, but brilliantly brought to life through concrete evidence — donations to elite universities are rarely benevolent acts of philanthropy, but rather a means for donors to accumulate social capital and secure spots for their children.
In a first in American reporting, Golden briefly addresses the plight of poor international students, whose wealthy peers are seen as “cash cows” by most universities, resulting in few opportunities for financial aid. I also learnt a lot from the chapter on the brief crusade in Congress against legacy admissions and was motivated by continuing campaigns. Golden also leaves us with a model of a college that continues to be a world-class research institution without the trappings of legacy and donations, through a chapter on Caltech.
I was a little wary of the chapter on discrimination against Asian Americans in admissions (titled “The New Jews,” an analogy I was especially wary of), in light of the recent controversies involving Harvard and Yale. However, I hope when read in the context of the overall book, I found the chapter to be fairly reasonable and not a call to abolish affirmative action.
Golden’s book centers the wealthy and well-connected and does not talk about the more everyday, “legal” forms of privilege amongst upper class simply in terms in access to greater resources. It also focusses on the process of getting into college but does not say much on what happens once students get there. Here is where I found Jack’s The Privileged Poor to be a great complement to Golden’s book.
The Privileged Poor is an ethnography of Black and Latin American undergraduate students at an elite college, referred to as “Renowned” through the book (I guess it is Harvard but I am not sure). Jack interviewed these students over 2–3 years, charting their growth and experiences over their time at Renowned. The central theme of Jack’s book is the difference in experience between the “privileged poor” — low-income Black and Latin American students who were able to attend majority-white elite private boarding schools before arriving at Renowned — and the “doubly disadvantaged” — students who attended under-resourced high schools in segregated neighborhoods. While both groups face challenges in navigating spaces built for rich, white people, the privileged poor are able to adjust better and take advantage of resources at Renowned due to their past experiences in a similar environment in their private schools. On the other hand, the culture shock for the doubly disadvantaged, some of whom go from witnessing daily homelessness and police brutality to hearing about their peers vacations and summer homes in the Cayman Islands, severely hampers their adjustment to college life, leading to severe mental health issues and a constant feeling of alienation which further impedes the doubly disadvantaged from taking advantage of the resources offered by Renowned.
Having attended Yale, a university like Renowned, I found much of what Jack writes about to be familiar from my friends’ accounts and personal observations as a first-year counselor (FroCo) in-charge of helping incoming students’ transition to college. As a FroCo, I remember sometimes feeling frustrated when my offers for to help went unacknowledged by my counselees, but over time I came to realise that the changes some of them were going through were far beyond my grasp. The Privileged Poor provides a systematic, comprehensive, and most importantly, empathetic, account of the struggles faced by underprivileged students at elite institutions. It demonstrates that despite elite institutions’ best intentions to increase diversity and set up additional programs to aid these students’ transitions into college, these resources are often not used because the students don’t feel comfortable in spaces that have historically been set up to exclude them.
I did have one unanswered question from my first reading of the book — Jack repeatedly makes the point that the privileged poors’ experiences in boarding schools helps them navigate elite white spaces simply because they have had experience in doing so in the past. This assertion made me wonder if “adjustment” for the doubly disadvantaged was simply a matter of time, or if elite college was in some way fundamentally different from elite high school. I can imagine a greater expectation of independence from students being one important difference — the doubly disadvantaged are thrown in the deep end of the pool in college and left to swim on their own while high schools may provide more proactive support systems.
Jack and Golden’s books together present gnarly problems plaguing elite higher education at first. Selling admission spots and not supporting low-income racial minorities may seem like unrelated problems at first, but are together symptomatic of an elite higher education system that continues to perpetuate the inequalities its founding 300 years ago was built on. I strongly recommend both of these books to anyone remotely associated with or interested in elite higher education, especially parents, students, and faculty.