In an economy where a college degree is virtually a prerequisite for financial security, the process of college admissions carries many implications for social equality and inequality. In this highly readable book, education and sociology professor Mitchell Stevens offers a glimpse into the world of admissions, which he immersed himself in by working in the admissions office of an unnamed elite liberal arts college.
Perhaps more than anything, the book drives home the message that higher education--particularly the elite private college--is a business, and admissions officers look for students who will boost the institution's prestige for a minimal cost. As they pore over the files of prospective students, the officers prioritize "free" students over ones who need financial aid. They also look for students who will increase the school's status: talented athletes, minorities, and students whose parents are deemed likely donors or whose (prestigious) high schools the college seeks to woo. In some cases, the student's looks and popularity even come into play, since the admissions officers hope popular kids would advertise the college among their friends. Although Stevens portrays the admissions officers in a positive light--and there are times where an officer will advocate for a more "costly" student--they don't hesitate to divide the students into two bottom-line-driven groups: "good kids" and "schlocky kids."
It is well-known that most schools make it a priority to recruit quality student athletes (particularly football players), even those whose academics aren't the greatest. Stevens devotes an interesting chapter to this issue, explaining how the prestige of a given college is determined in part by which rivals it meets on the football field. He also discusses the role college sports have long played in fostering the community's identification with the school and in adding an aura of fun and masculinity to the otherwise un-masculine academic world.
In recent decades, diversity stats have also played an important role in colleges' prestige. Although this is a positive development on the surface, the book shows how schools comply with the letter of affirmative action, but not necessarily the spirit. While the admissions officers go to great lengths to recruit minority students, the minorities they recruit come from affluent backgrounds, not from disadvantaged communities in the inner city or rural areas. As a result, the college can boost its diversity numbers, but the truly disadvantaged--poor and working class minorities, whites, and children of immigrants--remain left behind.
Stevens illustrates how higher education is not just a business, but an instrument of social reproduction--in other words, it allows elites to pass their wealth and status on to their children, while acting as a gatekeeper. Further, he shows just how many obstacles stand in the way of young people outside the elite as they navigate the college admissions system. These obstacles are social as much as they are financial. From birth, affluent children are groomed for elite college admission; their parents ferry them to after school activities and sports camps, pay for their test prep courses, and enroll them in prestigious private high schools. In turn, sports coaches and guidance counselors forge mutually beneficial relationships (in admissions lingo, they "get a thing going") with admissions officers. Because of this combination of economic and social factors, students from elite backgrounds enter the game at an enormous advantage.
This book is valuable reading for anyone interested in higher education and social stratification, or for anyone who has simply wondered what goes on behind the imposing gates of elite college admissions.