The Corner

Politics & Policy

What’s So Elite about Our ‘Elite’ Colleges?

A student walks on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Conn., November 12, 2015. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Do students who go to our so-called elite colleges and universities receive a better education than those who go to schools that aren’t so prestigious? That is seldom the case, and often the reverse is true. Students who go to “lesser” institutions may get more time from their professors and the curriculum may be stronger. The “elite” schools are called that because they admit such a tiny percentage of applicants, most of whom are excellent students, and not because the education they offer is superior.

And yet, people go to extreme lengths to get their children into these colleges. A recent book, Guilty Admissions by Nicole LaPorte explores that phenomenon and Megan Zogby discusses it in today’s Martin Center article. 

The quest usually starts well before college, with elite high schools where parents shell out huge money and expect to get their money’s worth in high grades. Then they pull strings to get extra time for the kids to take the SAT to accommodate their claimed disabilities through what are called 504 Plans.

Such accommodations go mostly to students from well-to-do families. Zogby writes, “As learning disabilities have become a bonus rather than a burden, ritzy schools have a manufactured crisis. LaPorte compares Palisades Charter High School, a well-off and majority-white school, with El Monte High School, which is almost entirely Latino or Hispanic with 95 percent of students on free or reduced-price lunch. Yet Palisades has 8.5 percent of its students on a 504 plan, compared to only 0.1 percent of students at El Monte.”

Besides those tricks, the wealthy have other ways of getting their kids into fancy colleges. One of them is “tagging.” What’s that? LaPorte explains: “Tagged students include development [fundraising] cases, political cases (where a politician or highly influential community member is advocating for a student), VIP cases (the child of a celebrity), and trustee cases, (a member of the board of trustees is advocating for a child), as well as legacies and children of staff, to a lesser extent.”

For all of their rhetoric about commitment to social justice, the top people in these supposedly top colleges have not done much to combat the gaming of their admissions. That’s because it’s good for their bottom line. They are non-profit, but they are still revenue maximizers.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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