College Admissions and Affirmative Action for the Well-Off

Instapundit links to this Daily Beast piece:

These days, a nearly-perfect GPA is the barest requisite for an elite institution. You’re also supposed to be a top notch athlete and/or musician, the master of multiple extracurriculars. Summers should preferably be spent doing charitable work, hopefully in a foreign country, or failing that, at least attending some sort of advanced academic or athletic program.

Naturally, this selects for kids who are extremely affluent, with extremely motivated parents who will steer them through the process of “founding a charity” and other artificial activities. Kids who have to spend their summer doing some boring menial labor in order to buy clothes have a hard time amassing that kind of enrichment experience.

The irony is that even admissions officers seem to be put off by this dynamic; presumably that’s why I’m told that kids now have to have fake epiphanies about the suffering of other, less privileged people instead of just having fake epiphanies about themselves. This proves that they are really caring human beings who want to do more for the world than just make money so that they, too will, in their time, be able to get their children into Harvard.

I had something of an epiphany on this when I visited a D.C.-area private school that boasted that it had one of the best high school girls’ lacrosse teams in the country. Why in God’s name, I wondered, would anyone care about this when considering a private school, especially given that I was there for a kindergarten open house? Then it dawned on me: this is the way the school gets some girls with marginal academic credentials into elite schools. All elite colleges with women’s lacrosse have to fill their teams, and lacrosse is prevalent only at expensive private schools. A form of affirmative action for the rich, if you will. And a signal to parents that even if their girls don’t grow up to be lacrosse players, the school is willing to invest substantial resources in a variety of ways to make sure they get into a top college.

And then it dawned on me that the modern emphasis on admitting students who spend their summers building playgrounds in El Salvador, or conduct medical research at the Mayo Clinic, and so on, is another form of affirmative action for the rich (and those with well-educated parents). Not only do people from modest backgrounds not have the financial wherewithal to do such things, for most of them it would never occur to them to do them to begin with. (It certainly would never have occurred to me, and my background wasn’t all that modest.) By contrast, one of the jobs of guidance counselors at fancy private schools is to ensure that their students have exactly the kind of “experiences” that admissions officers are looking for. Not surprisingly, I was just reading how America’s most elite universities are dominated by kids from wealthy families (sorry, didn’t save the link).

This is also a reason that elite universities are so committed to affirmative action preferences. By ensuring that they have sufficient “diversity” in their classes, they claim the mantle of “social justice” while distracting potential critics from the fact that they have rigged the rest of the admissions process to favor those who have the resources and knowledge to game the system. There are all sorts of obvious reasons that, say, Harvard, would rather take in wealthy kids from well-educated families than scour the country for the diamonds in the rough. What’s interesting is how rarely they get called on it. What’s also interesting is that when Larry Summers made substantial efforts to make Harvard more accessible to kids from modest economic backgrounds he received approximately zero credit for it from his critics on the left.

UPDATE: Commenter Unemployed Northeastern writes:

Spot on. Having been lucky enough to land scholarships to attend a New England prep school back in the day (though not quite a Exeter/Andover/Deerfield-caliber institution), I can aver that the admissions standards at elite colleges for that cohort – particularly if they are athletes – are considerably lower than for Sally Q. Public School. I think rowing and hockey (men’s and women’s) are better examples than lacrosse, though. Two of the strongest sports for the Ivies and Little Ivies, and the Grotons and St Pauls and Choates and similar have produced a huge number of Olympians in those sports. The stories I could tell of B or B- students with <1200 SAT scores who got into Dartmouth or Williams or Harvard because they attended a "proper" private school and had great ability to row or play lacrosse, hockey, squash, etc... And if you read Kellogg professor Lauren Rivera's groundbreaking research* into the hiring proclivities of elite banks and consulting firms, you would learn that the golden ticket to these careers, which probably have the best exit opportunities in the American workforce, is attendance to a Top 5 university AND athletic prowess. A 3.5GPA athlete from Harvard (3.5 being the average grade at Harvard these days, thanks to years of grade inflation) is prized over a 4.0GPA non-athlete from Harvard, and of course, if one *only* attends a Bowdoin or Georgetown or UW Madison, well, you probably won't get an interview. THIS is why certain parents freak out about the strength of these sports - it is easier to get into an Ivy from athletics than academics, elite employers value athletes (most likely because they were athletes themselves, as were the people who hired them, etc etc), and let's be honest, the middle class is collapsing.

To wit, Jerome Karabel reveals in his book "The Chosen" that to this day, 40% of each incoming class at Princeton is comprised of legacies and athletes and URMs, in that order. The Harvard Crimson revealed a little while ago that even though the institution arguably has the best FA in the world, nearly half of the student body came from a family with more than $200,000 in annual household income (roughly the top 3.8% of households), while less than 1 in 25 came from the bottom quntile and less than 1 in 5 came from the bottom THREE quintiles of income.