Daniel Golden was not born to privilege. He studied hard and graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, and he believes America’s universities should be meritocracies. “My family benefited from upward mobility and the American dream, and that influences the perspective I take,” says Golden.
Golden, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal who covers education, writes scathingly about universities that fall short of his expectations. In “The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates” he rails against current admissions policies. He claims, for instance, that Brown toadies to celebrities, Duke sold itself to the wealthy, and Notre Dame is unfair to those without alumni connections. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his work.
Harvard merited its own chapter but Princeton University is mentioned in Golden’s book at least three dozen times. Golden returns to his sources on Wednesday, November 15, at 7 p.m. for a talk and booksigning at the Princeton University Store. Call 609-921-8500.
Golden chastises Princeton for admitting a scion of the Frist family, Harrison Frist, who went to St. Alban’s prep but had tests and grades far below the university’s standards. The Frists, among other contributions, donated $25 million for the university’s student center. Why shouldn’t their progeny be entitled to a Princeton education?
“The best universities should be for the kid with the greatest potential,” insists Golden in a telephone interview from Boston. “America is all about helping kids with the greatest promise, and not about artificially perpetuating the aristocracy because their grandfather made a huge amount of money. This is just class-ridden thinking.”
Four other St. Albans seniors had stronger records. “Perhaps worried that rejecting any of the quartet would prompt outcries of Frist favoritism, Princeton accepted them all,” Golden writes. “This cover-up strategy — admitting a subpar candidate for institutional reasons and then defusing potential criticism by taking every other higher-ranking applicant from the same school — is well known in admissions circles and even has its own euphemism: considering “context.” More St. Albans graduates entered Princeton in 2002 than in the prior or subsequent years — and, since college admissions is a zero-sum game, fewer from other schools. One insider called it the “Frist effect.”
Golden agrees that you can get a good education at many schools. “But the people who say the Ivy League doesn’t matter are usually people who went to the Ivy League. Those who went to a community college and fought their way up are those who know their odds are not in their favor. You can’t blame parents for not wanting the best possible opportunity. I would want my kid to go to the school perceived to provide a leg up in the future. So it is hard to blame the wealthy for trying to take advantage of a system that is designed for them to do that.”
To recent publicity about how the majority of the CEOs are coming from state colleges, not the Ivies, Golden says, “People who rise to the top are driven at an early age. They don’t need an Ivy League school. But look at the executives in the next rank. the CEOs surround themselves with prestigious degrees.”
To the assumption that colleges can’t thrive without admitting children of the wealthy, Golden brandishes three examples of colleges that are flourishing as what he terms “pure meritocracies:” CalTech, which admits on scores alone, Cooper Union, which is free to all, and Berea, founded to help underprivileged Appalachian youths. But the Harvard Crimson tartly pointed out that CalTech gets 40 percent of its revenue from science research grants, whereas liberal arts faculties would get far less. Another critic zeroed in on how CalTech’s percentage of black students is extremely low.
His sources? Counselors and admissions officers who find their judgments thwarted. They came up with an impressive string of documented examples about students who, despite lower grades and SAT scores, were chosen over classmates who were not wealthy, did not have an alumni connection, or, in the case of Princeton, were not faculty children.
Golden tried to show just how much Princeton favors faculty children by gathering statistics from Princeton High School, attended by many of them. Over a four year period, 52 graduates of PHS went to Princeton, compared to 12 at Yale, 8 at Columbia, and 6 at Harvard. Golden thinks this is wrong. “To make room for lesser lights who are faculty children,” he writes, “a university turns away more promising applicants — sapping the vitality of classroom discussion, diminishing the quality of student work, perhaps even eroding the reputation of the institution.”
Golden spares nobody. Among those he hoists up the flagpole is the daughter of Shirley Tilghman, charging that she would not have been admitted to Princeton had she not been the offspring of a professor. Golden’s proof: that the daughter did not graduate with honors from Princeton High, and that she took five years to get through, graduating without honors in 2003, two years after her mother became university president. Neither Tilghman honored Golden with a comment.
Golden is both an insider (a Harvard alumnus) and an outsider (his parents were immigrants who made their own way and are now professors at UMass at Amherst). “My parents were grateful that bright hardworking people are able to rise through hard work,” he says. “Growing up in a state university environment, but attending a private university and knowing the faculty perspective, helped me know this world, but not be of this world,” he says. “I know what these elite institutions are like, but I also know the other side of higher ed.”
Harvard is not the only part of Golden’s past that he has attacked. “I had a very good time at Harvard and I had a good time in Amherst, but I wrote a number of critical stories about UMass that drove people nuts,” says Golden. “They were good journalism just like this is good journalism. I like to think I take the tips where they lead.” (His most recent story: A November 11 story documenting a civil rights complaint by an Asian American who was rejected by Princeton, despite perfect 2400 SATs, but admitted by Yale.)
Golden attributes good breaks in his reporting to “a lot of luck” and the fact that preferential admission had gone mostly unnoticed. “Everybody knew about it through gossip, and the colleges generally said that alumni preference was only a tiebreaker. I documented that was not true. And hardly anyone talked about development preference, that the fundraising office gives admissions a list of names.”
His father, he says, was his biggest influence. An 18th century English literature scholar, he was a stickler for standards of literary merit. “He didn’t like for an inferior book to be praised just because it was Marxist or feminist,” says Golden. “From that I gained a respect for standards for merit and judgment.”
Golden was also influenced by his politically active grandfather, an economist, who came back to Berlin after World War II to help Willie Brandt rebuild the city, and who died, perhaps of a broken heart, shortly after the Berlin Wall was built.
After Harvard, Golden worked for a small paper in Springfield, Massachusetts, and then at the Boston Globe. Following his Knight Fellowship at Stanford he was hired by the Journal. Golden is married to a former teacher and has two grown stepchildren and a teen-aged son.
Golden targeted his message, it would seem, to higher education’s policy makers, and it may have had some effect. Harvard dropped its early admissions policy exactly one week after his book came out, and he likes to think the book had something to do with the decision. It will also be read by alumni of the colleges he discusses.
Nevertheless, the mass audience will be parents who are trying to get their sons and daughters into selective colleges. Reading accounts about other families’ dilemmas may salve the wounds of those who feel they “failed.”
But parents of younger students should read between the lines. At least one of the juicy case histories will mirror your situation. You may discover it is not be worth paying for a prep school if your chief goal is a top notch college placement. Or that you should be more flexible in your expectations. Golden tells of one family who thought their son had failed because he graduated from Johns Hopkins instead of Harvard.
Golden says that everyone always knew that colleges gave preferential treatment to certain groups but he was the first to prove that. “Some love the book, others hate it, but everybody would have to acknowledge that I have introduced a fresh element in the dialogue.”