- Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites
The so-called “elite” schools—the Ivy League, selective liberal arts colleges, and bigger universities such as Duke, Northwestern, and Stanford—garner a disproportionate share of attention when it comes to undergraduate admissions and education considering that they serve a relatively small percentage of the total number of people enrolled in post-secondary education. In recent years, books by Daniel Golden, Peter Schmidt, Joseph Soares, and others have offered everything from stern rebukes to scathing criticism of admissions practices that they contend favor money, power, and privilege over pure academic merit. The common element in each of these and many other books is that they focus on the “elite” colleges, while a vast majority of students attend community colleges, regional state universities, less selective private colleges, and for-profit career and technical institutions.
Joining the fray is Mitchell Stevens and his book Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites, an in-depth account of the year and a half Stevens spent working as an admissions officer while on leave from his faculty post at New York University. The book is not so much a rebuke [End Page 423] of the process as a sociological critique of an educational system that has stacked the deck against people on the lowest rungs on the socio-economic ladder. This inequality of opportunity prevents a great many deserving students from having a real chance at admission to the country’s most selective and expensive colleges—those colleges that immediately upon graduation confer upon their alumni the kind of status and prestige that regional state universities and community colleges do not.
Mitchell launches this critique from a case study of the admissions process at a school he calls The College. Its identity was subsequently disclosed in early press notices as Hamilton College in upstate New York, where Stevens was on the faculty for a number of years before moving to NYU. Hamilton enrolls fewer than 1,800 students in total, and each fall welcomes a freshman class smaller than 500. Stevens uses Hamilton as an example—an admittedly small example—of the larger problem with American education that is the true subject of the book.
Stevens orders the book primarily according to the timeline of the admissions process. While some of the chapters have an ostensible theme—for example, race or sports—the issues covered are couched in their place along the admissions time continuum. Stevens begins by describing The College—its bucolic setting a few hours from any major urban area; its small community of students, faculty, and staff; its overwhelming culture of Whiteness and privilege.
Next, Stevens describes the workaday life of an admissions officer, from the autumns spent touring an assigned region to drum up applications from the usual as well as the unlikely sources, to a winter and early spring spent reading applications and making decisions on admission, some decisions very easy and some very difficult. Stevens also devotes a chapter to discussing yield season, the generally overlooked aspect of college admissions at selective institutions, when admissions staff pull out all the stops to encourage enrollment from students with many options.
The heart of the book is the theory of social reproduction and the role that colleges like Hamilton play in propagating the upper social strata of American society. Stevens calls social reproduction an “elaborate”, “complicated,” and “expensive machinery” that parents operate to ensure that their earned status is transferred to their children. Along the way we learn that everything from the right pre-schools to access to organized sports teams to SAT coaching are gears in the machine that build advantages for students from upper-income families.
It is not a remarkably new idea that Stevens is broaching in this book. Marxist and critical theorists have been mining this area for decades, and the education system has not been spared scrutiny. Indeed, many of the recent books on college admissions referenced above make the same point...