The Gatekeepers by Jacques Steinberg
The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College
by Jacques Steinberg
Viking. 292 pp. $25.95
Jacques Steinberg’s The Gatekeepers, an account of the admissions system at Wesleyan University, is enormously readable. It is also revelatory, if not always in ways the author intends. The process it describes is opaque to most students applying to college, and Steinberg, a New York Times reporter specializing in education, plainly scored a coup when Wesleyan agreed to give him a close-quarters look at how it all works at one, presumably representative, elite institution.
Over a span of eight months, ending in the spring of 2000—the period when the class of 2004 was being selected—Steinberg was given more or less unlimited access to one of the college’s nine admissions officers, an experienced, hard-working chap named Ralph Figueroa. He also received bountiful cooperation from other major players in the admissions process; got to see the applicants’ grades, test scores, and essays; spent time with many of these students; and even met some of their high-school college counselors. More dramatically, Steinberg was allowed to sit in on the conferences where the critical votes were cast—accept, reject, wait-list—and to observe the admissions officers’ strategies for helping or hurting controversial candidates. His cast of characters is huge, and real names are used throughout.
High-school seniors suffering the traumas of this process may wonder whether the decision-makers really bother studying the extensive data in every application folder. On the persuasive evidence presented by Steinberg, Wesleyan’s gatekeepers are conscientious readers. Indeed, some of them get over-involved in the process and are somewhat traumatized themselves when candidates they like are rebuffed. Playing God obviously has its downside, especially in an admissions process chronically overwhelmed by the number of applicants needing to be evaluated.
Wesleyan tries to bring aboard about 715 freshmen each year, but the number of applicants keeps rising, and was close to 7,000 for the class of 2004. With few exceptions, each application is reviewed by at least two admissions officers, and sometimes the dean of admissions will go over it as well. In one two-month stretch, each of the admissions officers had around 1,000 applications to read and judge. Super-conscientious Ralph Figueroa would never devote less than twenty minutes to even the most dismal entry, and frequently found himself reading essays over and over, and then reading them aloud to his wife at the end of the day. “Sometimes,” Steinberg tells us, “they would cry together at the depth of feeling some of those pieces expressed.”
Of the roughly 7,000 applicants, close to 1,000 had applied for “early admission,” a deal in which the students agree that, if accepted, they will withdraw all applications to other colleges. At Wesleyan, about 300 of the 1,000 applicants were accepted this way, getting the happy news by February. That left 400-plus positions to fill in the regular admissions process. But since only about one quarter of the regular admittees ultimately opt for Wesleyan—often a second or third choice in the elite college merry-go-round—the admissions officers had to produce some 1,600 offers. In 2000, they opted to settle for around 1,500, figuring that if they came up short in the end, they could turn to the waiting list.
Wesleyan, it turns out, is every bit as market-driven as General Electric. And it is not alone. All the elite colleges seem to live in perpetual dread of losing market share as measured in the annual rankings published by the newsweekly U.S. News & World Report. They want ratings that tell the world of their invincible appeal to the best students. They want to show high average SAT scores—freshmen at Wesleyan can generally point to a combined math-verbal score around 1350, out of a possible 1600—even while admitting a fair number of low-scoring minority students. A claim to be elite requires low overall acceptance rates, and Wesleyan’s 15 percent or so is excellent. Also important are high average “acceptance yields,” i.e., a good showing in the number of accepted students who decide to attend; on this last measure, Wesleyan’s 25 percent is okay but not great. Finally, on the list of best liberal-arts colleges, Wesleyan ranks a respectable eleventh and worries about falling much lower.
Students who emerge as star attractions in this process often get free trips all over America to look at campuses and meet professors. Steinberg tells us about a multiracial (black, white, Latina) young lady named Julianna Bentes for whom all the elite colleges were panting. She finished near the top of her class at a first-rate high school, had a combined SAT score over 1500, and was a talented dancer.
Stanford shamelessly promised Julianna that she would meet undergraduate Chelsea Clinton if she came to visit Palo Alto, and so she did. She also visited Wesleyan, where the student assigned to escort her around the campus took her to a meeting of a group called the Cunt Club. An approved student organization that is listed by name on the college website and receives student-government funds, this club introduces its members to various sex toys and aims to empower women in their encounters with men or other women. It appears that Ralph Figueroa, who had been pursuing the nice young lady for years, came close to tearing out his hair when he heard where his prized prospect had been taken. In the end, Julianna was accepted at all thirteen of the institutions she applied to, and ended up at Yale, where, Steinberg informs us, she could recently be found protesting the American “obliteration” of Afghanistan.
Figueroa tells Steinberg that he sympathizes with the huge public universities that lack “the time and resources to put a student’s SAT scores in context [and] often had to choose many of their students by feeding a combination of grades and test scores into a computer.” How dreadful, the reader is invited to think. Yet a case could be made that Wesleyan itself would do far less damage in its admissions process if it simply settled for the computer. The school’s elaborate procedures for reinterpreting grades and test scores in order to guarantee high admission rates for minorities—blacks are targeted to get 11 percent of the freshman class—are patently unfair and, arguably, have created illegal quotas.
Like Wesleyan itself and the universe of elite institutions in general, Steinberg is orthodox in his commitment to affirmative action and the ideas invoked to support it. Indeed, it is impossible to believe that Wesleyan would have offered him such unparalleled access had he not obviously embraced the cause. Among the familiar liberal refrains here presented as simple truths is the idea that whites benefit as much as minorities from a “diverse” student body.
Still, Steinberg’s reporting allows us to see the elaborate dodges that Wesleyan has developed for defining “merit” down—that is, for finding that the low-scoring minority applicant is somehow more qualified than the white or Asian with a stellar SAT score. His portraits of selected students—selected apparently because they were of special interest to Ralph Figueroa—repeatedly demonstrate that the SAT is an extremely good predictor of college success, especially as compared to the wishful sociological forecasting of admissions officers.
Figueroa, for instance, was determined to get a Native American into Wesleyan and fastened on a personable young man named Migizi Pensoneau, “Mig” for short. It seems that Mig had scored only 1210 on the SAT, well below the Wesleyan median, but had recently improved his high-school grades and, as Figueroa wrote in his own summary of the case, “Would Add” (meaning that he would somehow enhance the college’s general environment). Mig was accepted into Wesleyan by a 7-2 vote of the admissions committee. He dropped out toward the end of his freshman year after flunking physics, Greek drama, and neurobiology. He obviously had some talent, but was over-matched at Wesleyan.
The opposite case—a gifted student rejected by Wesleyan—is exemplified in the tale of Tiffany Wang, a young lady from a well-to-do California family of Taiwanese origins. Her grades were excellent, and her combined SAT score was 1450. This included a 750 on the verbal test, truly spectacular for a student who had been brought up in a Chinese-speaking household. In addition, she had been a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist, had played high-school basketball, and had a range of extracurricular interests, including extensive—and exquisitely politically correct—correspondence with death-row inmates.
So what was the rap on her? Partly that other Asian-American students at her high school had even higher SAT’s. Partly that her parents were wealthy and college-educated, which made her “privileged.” Also, she had opted to take “very demanding”—but not “the most demanding”—courses offered by her high school. So Tiffany was consigned to the waiting list, where her prospects were dim. Declining to wait, she decided to go to NYU, where, not surprisingly, she is now doing fine.
The late news on Ralph Figueroa is that he has taken a job as a high-school guidance counselor in Albuquerque. The job pays more than the $43,000 a year he was making at Wesleyan, and he will be closer to his parents. Best of all, he will still be able to help college-bound students, and without the awful burden of playing God.