The perils of privilege

Colleges discriminate against rich white kids from the Northeast! Oh, the scandal!

By Amy Benfer

Published January 13, 2009 2:26PM (EST)

The deadline for college admissions is swiftly approaching and with it comes the semi-annual crop -- look forward to more come May! -- of hysterical articles attempting to decipher and condemn the unfair vagaries of those beleaguered college admissions officers, the alleged gatekeepers to a cushy life of upper-middle-class comfort (college loans, white-collar crimes and inconvenient addictions notwithstanding). Yesterday’s story in the Daily Beast is a typical contribution to the genre: a collection of vague anecdotes intended to shock and titillate, attributed to shadowy officials so important, they must, for their own protection, remain cloaked in anonymity, presented under the smutty headline "Dirty Secrets of College Admissions." (Yes, rereading that sentence I realized it sounds a lot like a porno, too).

And, as is far too often the case, this particular article focuses on the perils of too much privilege. Writer Kathleen Kingsbury chooses to focus on the kinds of discrimination that will best provoke the Web site's presumed readership of highly educated adults: "why attending a good high school can hurt your chances, the perils of too many recommendations, and why white girls from Jersey barely have a chance." Oh, the scandal!

Yes, we all get a little grossed-out when reading about the underachieving athletes who go straight from the coach to the admit list (though plenty of good colleges care little about their sports teams) and the legacy candidates whose greatest lifetime achievement is being born to parents who can afford to contribute a new stadium or science lab. When an admissions officer claims to have admitted an otherwise unremarkable candidate because the school orchestra needs an oboe player, according to a "current admissions officer at an Ivy League university," it means, "More likely, Mommy and Daddy just gave a $1 million donation." But don’t get too comfortable, you scions of industry. According to another: "Only about 70 percent of the VIP kids get in, because it can be equally embarrassing if some big celebrity’s son fails out or gets arrested on campus.” (Only 70 percent!)

But a perennial feature of these kinds of pieces is a not-so-subtle class resentment aimed by the very privileged toward those less so (who, by the way, you will never catch me referring to with the charity circuit cliché "less fortunate"). Lack of privilege is just about the only thing not for sale to overachiever parents and their offspring, and I often get the feeling that many of them are more than a little pissed off they can’t write a tuition check to cover that, too.

Read too many of these pieces, and you may come away feeling that there is an insidious campaign to undermine the applications of (mostly wealthy) white kids from Northeastern (mostly private) schools. Here’s the money shot on that white girl from New Jersey:

"We were always looking for candidates from underrepresented groups. So if you are just a typical white girl from New Jersey and your application didn’t pass muster, it was relegated to the reject pile without a second thought. With a minority kid with the same stats, you just can’t do that. They always warrant a second or even third look."

This is seconded in the comments section by an anonymous (but no more anonymous than the sources named in the article!) poster who claims to be a former admissions officer from "a big state school in Florida" and writes that there was an "unofficial quota" on kids from New York and New Jersey because there were just too damn many of them. They probably "never realized it was because of their street address," she laments.

Michele Hernandez, a former Dartmouth admissions officer and author and current "admissions consultant" (who undoubtedly lends out her services free of charge), explains that underprivileged is the new privileged when it comes to admissions:

"Most of the time you can’t predict what will push one candidate over the edge. Right now, for instance, schools are showing a large preference for non-college backgrounds -- that is, applicants whose parents didn’t go to college. You have no control over who your parents are, but right now it helps if they didn’t go to college. Or Middlebury right now is on a kick for bringing in kids from outside the Northeast. They don’t want to be seen as a prep-school depository. Some 65 percent of their student body is from other parts of the country. Some schools even discriminate against the wealthy kid from Greenwich or New York City. They have to prove they have an actual love of learning and didn’t just spend summers flying to Europe on Daddy’s jet."

Hey, you have no control over who your parents are! But I’m not sure that admitting a kid because his parents kicked in a million bucks can be equated with admitting the kid who has the grossly unfair advantage to have been born to two low-income immigrants from El Salvador. What is grossly unfair is the absurdly different advantages available to children whose parents can afford to pay for, say, progressive kindergarten, SAT tutoring, college “consultants” and professional essay editors. Stephen Friedfeld, one of those “private admissions consultants,” recalls his days as an admissions officer:

"The biggest surprise for me was the difference in how much more contact private-school guidance counselors had with the admissions office vs. public schools. I went back to my own public high school alma mater and the guidance counselor asked, 'Would it be okay for me to contact school regarding a student?' I couldn't believe he was asking. That's just commonplace amongst the private school counselors or affluent suburban high schools. We brought in guidance counselors from a bunch of schools, most of them private high school counselors. And we visited those schools for events. We knew the private-school counselors by name and by face, and they've met the admissions officers from the most prestigious universities. That's a big advantage for students. Those counselors are pushing for them, advocating for them. I never got a call from a public school."

These kinds of advantages -- along with the concrete academic skills that come from a fine education -- already ensure that the majority of competitive private universities are made up of exceedingly well-educated, mostly affluent students from the best schools in the country. A kid who comes from a family who can afford full tuition at a private university without financial aid may have any number of problems, but lack of access to institutionalized privilege certainly is not one of them (any exceptions -- say, the kid of fabulously wealthy mobsters with eighth grade educations -- are likely to be interesting cases on their own). These are the ones for whom failure still means a spot at a formidably well-connected and expensive school. Choosing between a kid who has had access to all of that and still remains a mediocre candidate and one who has had to create his or her own advantages through self-invention and hard work is not the kind of discrimination we should be worried about. It is, in fact, the kind that allows us to be more fair, not less.

Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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