College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

An Admissions Race That’s Already Won

By Eduwonkette — January 07, 2008 1 min read
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In October, I awarded the first “Gold Star Book Award” to Mitchell Stevens’ Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites. (You can read more about the book here.)

In this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, Stevens turns in an incisive op-ed that serves as a powerful rejoinder to the absurdity bug that bit the Wall Street Journal last week:

By the time upper-middle-class 17-year-olds sit down to write their applications, most of the race to top institutions has already been run, and they already enjoy comfortable leads....For those kids, the big question is not whether they will be admitted to an elite institution, but which ones will offer them spots. Even while the fate of individual applicants at particular colleges remains uncertain until decision letters are mailed, the overall distribution of outcomes is heavily skewed in favor of affluent applicants. That is not the result of discrimination by admissions officers, but rather the consequence of privileged families deftly playing by the rules of the meritocratic game.

My research convinced me that the ever-more-frenzied activity surrounding selective admissions is essentially ceremonial — an elaborate national ritual of just desserts. The fact that the fates of particular applicants at particular colleges remain uncertain until the end enables us to believe that the winners earn their victories in a fair game. That is how the anxiety that attends the application season is deceptive: It encourages those who experience it to believe that the outcomes of the process are considerably more uncertain than they actually are.
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